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Sotomayor confirmation within reach

Sonia Sotomayor would be the first Hispanic and only the third woman to join the Supreme Court.

Associated Press

Sonia Sotomayor would be the first Hispanic and only the third woman to join the Supreme Court.

WASHINGTON — Sonia Sotomayor sped toward confirmation as the nation's first Hispanic justice Thursday, encouraged by Republican promises of a quick vote and cheered on by a Democratic senator's challenge to take on the Supreme Court's conservative wing when she arrives.

"Battle out the ideas that you believe in, because I have a strong hunch that they are closer to the ones that I would like to see adopted by the court," Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, a Republican turned Democrat, told Sotomayor.

Even two of her Republican critics called the 55-year-old appeals court judge's rulings mainstream — noteworthy concessions for President Barack Obama's first high court nominee.

If confirmed, Sotomayor would become the first justice appointed by a Democratic president in 15 years.

As Sotomayor concluded three grueling days of nationally televised question-and-answer rounds in the Judiciary Committee's witness chair, the panel's senior Republican, Jeff Sessions of Alabama, said, "I look forward to you getting that vote before we recess" on Aug. 7.

Sessions, who declared he still had serious concerns about Sotomayor, said he wouldn't support any attempt to block a final vote on confirmation and didn't foresee any other Republican doing so. A committee vote on confirming her is expected late this month.

Four days of confirmation hearings concluded just before nightfall Thursday after an afternoon of testimony from 28 witnesses, including Sotomayor's mentors and supporters as well as critics who voiced concerns about how she'd rule on matters involving abortion, gun and property rights.

Her elevation all but assured, Sotomayor took few risks during her own testimony, repeatedly sidestepping questions on hot-button issues like guns and abortion rights and defending speeches that have been faulted as showing bias.

Sotomayor has overwhelming if not unanimous support among the Senate's 58 Democrats and two independents — and is likely to win a number of votes among the 40 Republicans as well.

Her confirmation hearings were fraught with racial politics that created a dilemma for Republicans, who stepped carefully during their tough questioning of Sotomayor — eager to please their conservative base but wary of alienating Hispanics, the fastest-growing voting demographic.

They pressed Sotomayor repeatedly on her 2001 statement that she hoped a "wise Latina" would usually rule better than a white man, drawing expressions of regret from the nominee, who said the words had been taken out of context and misunderstood.

In four days of testimony — she gave a brief opening statement on Monday — Sotomayor presented herself as a staunch and impartial defender of the law. She rarely strayed from a script replete with pledges to put her feelings and prejudices aside when she rules.

The National Rifle Association announced it would oppose Sotomayor, saying she held a hostile view of the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms, although a spokesman declined to say whether the group would include her confirmation vote in its ratings of lawmakers. The NRA's closely watched "scores" weigh heavily on lawmakers in both parties.

He spoke, this 35-year-old firefighter, to frustrations that still ripple in an undercurrent across the nation.

Frank Ricci, who is white, sat before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday and spoke in a deliberate voice about how he studied hard, played by the rules, and was denied a promotion because of the color of his skin. His made no mention of Sonia Sotomayor, who had ruled against a discrimination claim by Ricci and fellow firefighters.

People shouldn't be reduced to "racial statistics," Ricci told the senators. They "don't wish to be divided along racial lines." His message was seconded by fellow firefighter Ben Vargas, who is Hispanic.

"You put a face on the issues," Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., told the firefighters.

Sotomayor, for her part, held out her ruling in the case as evidence that she hews to the law and precedent, not emotion or sympathies.

Ricci, whose lawsuit ultimately was upheld by the Supreme Court, called the whole ordeal an unbelievable civics lesson.

To Ronald Walters, professor emeritus at the University of Maryland, it was a lesson in the enduring potency of racial politics.

For Republicans, Walters said, "it's an issue that plays well with their constituency and they're drumming it. … Basically this is a narrow pitch toward the white community and the elections in the fall."

Michael Selmi, a professor at the George Washington Law School who wrote a retrospective on the Allen Bakke case, in which a white student with good grades accused the University of California medical school of twice denying him admission because of his race, said the issue has waned over the years and more people recognize the value of diversity. But he said the firefighters' case still struck a chord, coming along just as jobs in the auto industry are evaporating.

"They're trying to hold on to those jobs, and that lost era" when white guys ruled the day, Selmi said.

Sotomayor confirmation within reach 07/16/09 [Last modified: Thursday, July 16, 2009 11:56pm]

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