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Sotomayor Tells Senators She is ‘Humbled’

Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee she is "very humbled" to be President Barack Obama's choice for a seat on the nation's top court.

In a seven-minute statement, the jurist summed up her judicial philosophy, saying, "The task of a judge is not to make the law; it is to apply the law."

Members of the panel divided on partisan lines over the significance of what Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., described as Sotomayor's "historic nomination" to the Supreme Court as the panel opened her confirmation hearings Monday.

Senators from both parties acknowledged the ground being broken by Obama's Supreme Court nominee. Sotomayor would be the first Hispanic member of the Supreme Court if she is confirmed.

"Judge Sotomayor is living proof that this country is moving in the right direction on the issue of race," said Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis.

"I would hope that every American is proud that a Hispanic woman has been nominated to serve on the Supreme Court," said the deputy Republican leader of the Senate, Jon Kyl of Arizona. Another Republican on the panel, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., conceded that Sotomayor's ascendency to the nation's highest court is all but inevitable.

"Unless you have a complete meltdown, you're going to get confirmed," Graham told Sotomayor, an acknowledgement of the political realities in the Senate, where Democrats hold 60 of 100 seats.

The elaborate courtesies of the senators' opening statements were delivered before a hearing room packed with Sotomayor's friends and family - including her mother, Celina Sotomayor, and stepfather, Omar Lopez.

But sharp philosophical differences over her nomination emerged.

Democrats emphasized Sotomayor's 17 years as a federal judge and the trails she blazed out of the Bronx public housing project where she grew up.

"Those who break barriers often face the added burden of overcoming prejudice," said Leahy. He suggested Sotomayor faces that burden, too, criticizing "partisans and outside pressure groups that have sought to create a caricature of Judge Sotomayor while belittling her record, her achievements and her intelligence."

Republicans focused on Sotomayor's statements and rulings that they said suggested she'd be biased. "Empathy for one party is always prejudice against another," said Sen. Jeff Sessions.

The Alabama Republican, his party's top-ranking member on the Judiciary Committee, has invited to testify later this week Frank Ricci, a representative of white firefighters whom Sotomayor ruled against in a case that threw out exam results because blacks and Hispanics scored poorly. The Supreme Court overturned that ruling last month.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, the committee's longest-serving member, said that Sotomayor's "compelling life story" must be balanced against her judicial philosphy. He argued that Republicans shouldn't be intimidated from outlining their objections.

Noting that Obama, as a senator, opposed Janice Rogers Brown, an African-American judge nominated to the appellate court by former President George W. Bush, Hatch said: "I share his hope that we have arrived at a point in our country's history where individuals can be examined and even criticized for their views, no matter what their race or gender."

As in every recent Supreme Court confirmation hearing, past resentments over the treatment of earlier nominees simmered just below the surface. Hatch was one of several Republicans who noted the refusal of Democrats in earlier Congresses to allow a vote on Miguel Estrada, "a brilliant, universally respected lawyer," whom Bush nominated to be a federal appellate judge.

Hatch also noted that, during his four years as a U.S. senator, Obama voted against both of Bush's Supreme Court nominees, including John Roberts, the chief justice who administered the oath of office that made him the nation's 44th president.

Democrats portrayed Sotomayor as a centrist judge. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., noted that Sotomayor upheld a police officer's right to make white supremacist remarks.

"In hot button cases. .. she carefully adheres to the facts before her," said Schumer, Sotomayor's homestate senator.

Sen. Russ Feinstein, D-Wis., accused Sotomayor's critics of taking some of the judge's comments "out of context." A speech that included Sotomayor's much discussed remark about the ability of a "wise Latina" to issue better decisions than her white male colleagues concluded with the judge saying she owes those in her courtroom "complete vigilance in checking my assumptions, presumptions and perspectives" in making her decisions.

Sotomayor sat mostly silently as senators spent the morning delivering traditional opening statements. The judge's only opportunity to talk during the morning came when Leahy invited her to introduce her entourage, which included many of her former law clerks and ex-FBI director Louis Freeh.

"If I introduce everyone who is family-like, we'd be here all morning," the judge joked, a faint New York accent audible in her voice. Also in the audience: Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., one of two Hispanic members of the Senate.

Outside the Senate office building where the hearing was being held, some protesters opposed to abortion rights gathered. Dick Retta of Rockville, Md., said he assumes Sotomayor reflects the views of the president who nominated her.

"I can't imagine Obama nominating anybody who is pro-life," Retta said. "He's the most atrocious abortion-minded president we've had."

One anti-abortion protester inside the hearing room briefly interrupted Sen. Dianne Feinstein's statement. "Senator, what about abortion?" a man yelled from the back of the room as the California Democrat spoke. He was quickly hustled out the door and both Leahy and Sessions admonished the crowd to stay quiet.

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