Minority Nominee Sotomayor Leaves GOP Walking Fine Line

Sonia Sotomayor to become first hispanic Supreme Court justice if confirmed.

May 8, 2009, 4:14 PM

May 26, 2009— -- Federal appealsjudge Sonia Sotomayor today called President Obama's decision to nominate her to the Supreme Court "the most humbling honor of my life."

But if Republican opponents have their way, her path to the Court could be anything but smooth. Several conservative lawmakers spent the hours after Obama's announcement this morning promising a thorough vetting in the Senate confirmation process.

Conservative voices and interest groups put together an immediate message portraying Sotomayor as an "activist" liberal, and radio host Rush Limbaugh pounced on Sotomayor, saying, "She is an affirmative action case extraordinaire."

"I doubt that Sotomayor can be stopped. She should be. She is a horrible pick," he said.

If confirmed, Sotomayor would make history as the first Hispanic justice, and would be only the third woman to ascend to the nation's highest court. Those facts could put Republican senators in an awkward position during the confirmation process, according to one Republican strategist.

"I think this is a bold and fairly masterful political stroke by President Obama," strategist Phil Musser said on ABCNews.com's "Top Line" today. "This is not a pick that necessarily can be good politics for Republican senators. I mean, having older white senators up there grilling the first Hispanic – up-from-the-boot-straps, Hispanic Supreme Court nominee -- that's a tough one for us OK, let's just be honest about that."

Given that, Musser said, the best GOP strategy is to hold back a bit and see what comes out about Sotomayor's record on the federal bench.

The top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, the panel that holds confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominees, congratulated Sotomayor, but noted that the committee's role "is to act on behalf of the American people to carefully scrutinize Ms. Sotomayor's qualifications, experience, and record."

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R- Ala., said the lawmakers will examine her past judicial opinions, speeches and academic writings "to determine if she has demonstrated the characteristics that great judges share: integrity, impartiality, legal expertise, and a deep and unwavering respect for the rule of law."

Obama, who called Sotomayor Monday night around 9 p.m. ET to tell her of his decision, said he decided to nominate her to the lifetime spot on the Supreme Court "only after deep reflection and careful deliberation."

Part of his decision-making process included a secret meeting with Sotomayor last Thursday in the Oval Office. She spent approximately seven hours meeting with the president and key White House staff after she and a friend drove to Washington to lessen the chances of being spotted.

Sotomayor's Rise From Humble Beginnings

Sotomayor's personal story is striking. She was born June 25, 1954, in the Bronx, N.Y., and raised in the Bronxdale housing project by parents from Puerto Rico.

And it is her rise from poverty that many consider her greatest asset. Her father was a tool-and-die maker, and her mother, Celina, was a nurse in a methadone clinic. She was diagnosed with diabetes at age 8 and her father died a year later, leaving her mother to raise a daughter and younger brother, Juan, who is now a physician, alone in a public housing project.

She graduated from Cardinal Spellman High School in 1972, from Princeton University summa cum laude in 1976 and from Yale Law School in 1979 after serving as a law journal editor.

She worked as an assistant district attorney in Manhattan from 1979 to 1984 and as an associate and then partner in the New York law firm of Pavia & Harcourt until 1992. That year, Republican President George H.W. Bush appointed her to serve as a judge on the U.S. District Court in Manhattan and, in 1998, Democratic President Clinton tapped her to move up to the U.S. Court of Appeals, also in Manhattan.

"Although I grew up in very modest and challenging circumstances, I consider my life to be immeasurably rich," Sotomayor said.

After noting some of her career highlights, she added that the culmination of her personal and professional experiences help her appreciate the "variety of perspectives that present themselves in every case that I hear" and to "understand, respect and respond to the concerns and arguments of all litigants who appear before me, as well as to the views of my colleagues on the bench."

"I strive never to forget the real world consequences of my decisions on individuals, businesses and government."

The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., praised Sotomayor's record as "exemplary," and said he believes "Judge Sotomayor understands that the courthouse doors must be as open to ordinary Americans as they are to government and big corporations."

Additionally, Leahy said, "having a Supreme Court that better reflects the diversity of America helps ensure that we keep faith with the words engraved in Vermont marble over the entrance of the Supreme Court: 'Equal justice under law.'"

Obama this morning highlighted his key qualities of a justice: "A rigorous intellect, a mastery of the law, an ability to hone in on the key issues and provide clear answers to complex legal questions" and a recognition of the limits of a judge's role "an understanding that a judge's job is to interpret, not make law, to approach decisions without any particular ideology or agenda, but rather a commitment to impartial justice, a respect for precedent, and a determination to faithfully apply the law to the facts at hand."

But some of the qualities Obama said he sought out and Sotomayor seems to possess have raised concern among conservative lawmakers, who claim that they are merely code for liberal activism and creating law instead of interpreting it.

Joining Sessions, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said senators will treat Sotomayor fairly, "But we will thoroughly examine her record to ensure she understands that the role of a jurist in our democracy is to apply the law even-handedly, despite their own feelings or personal or political preferences."

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said Sotomayor is a far left liberal with activist goals.

"The appointment of Maria Sotomayor for the Supreme Court is the clearest indication yet that President Obama's campaign promises to be a centrist and think in a bi-partisan way were mere rhetoric," Huckabee said in a statement that mistook the nominee's first name. "Sotomayor comes from the far left and will likely leave us with something akin to the 'Extreme Court' that could mark a major shift."

Limbaugh agreed, saying, "She is a hack, like he (Obama) is a hack in the sense that the court is a place to be used to make policy, not to adjudicate cases."

Sessions, McConnell and other Republican lawmakers stated that they will need adequate time to fully vet Sotomayor, signaling a potential holdup for Obama, who has said that he wants the new justice confirmed before lawmakers recess in August.

One particular statement that could come back to haunt Sotomayor is one she made while speaking on a panel at the Duke University School of Law in 2005.

In the video from that event, which has popped up on YouTube, she says "All of the legal defense funds out there, they're looking for people with court of appeals experience, because it is, court of appeals is where policy is made," a statement sure to provoke critics of judges who allegedly legislate from the bench. "And I know, and I know this is on tape, and I should never say that, because we don't make law, I know," she continued as the audience laughed. "OK. I know. I know. I'm not promoting it, and I'm not advocating it, I'm, you know."

Though senators confirmed her twice to serve on the federal bench, McConnell and Sessions have both voted against her for past appointments.

But Democrats have the majority of votes in the Senate, and voting against a historic nominee could prove politically difficult for Republicans.

Hispanic Groups Supportive of Sotomayor

Hispanic groups praised Obama's choice, noting its historical significance and meaning within that community.

Dr. Gabriela Lemus, executive director of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement and chair of the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda, said Sotomayor's nomination is "history-making" and "smashes another barrier that has stood in the way of Hispanic Americans' full participation in the life of our country."

But Estuardo V. Rodriguez, director of advocacy group Hispanics for a Fair Judiciary, also told ABC News that while the group's members are "emotional about the fact that she's Hispanic," the group wants to emphasize that she is "the most qualified nominee that we've seen, across the board, in 50 years."

Sotomayor's mother, stepfather, brother and his family attended today's announcement, which took an emotional turn when the nominee addressed them.

"I stand on the shoulders of countless people, yet there is one extraordinary person who is my life aspiration. That person is my mother, Celina Sotomayor," she said.

Noting her mother's dedication and strong work ethic, Sotomayor added, "I have often said that I am all I am because of her, and I am only half the woman she is."

ABC News' Viviana Hurtado contributed to this report.

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