WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama said Tuesday that he would nominate Sonia Sotomayor, a federal appeals court judge in New York, to the Supreme Court, choosing a daughter of Puerto Rican parents raised in a Bronx public housing project to become the nation's first Hispanic justice.
In making his first pick for the court, Obama emphasized Sotomayor's "extraordinary journey" from modest beginnings to the Ivy League and now the pinnacle of the judicial system. He cast the 54-year-old judge as the embodiment of the American dream.
Sotomayor's past comments about how her sex and ethnicity shaped her decisions and the role of appeals courts in making policy generated instant conservative complaints that she is a judicial activist, and Senate Republicans vowed to scrutinize her record. But with Democrats in reach of 60 votes needed to break a filibuster, the White House appeared eager to dare Republicans to stand against a history-making nomination at a time when both parties are courting the growing Hispanic vote.
"When Sonia Sotomayor ascends those marble steps to assume her seat on the highest court of the land," Obama said as he introduced her in the East Room of the White House, "America will have taken another important step toward realizing the ideal that is etched above its entrance: Equal justice under the law."
If confirmed to replace Justice David Souter, a mainstay of the liberal wing who is retiring, Sotomayor (pronounced soh-toh-my-YOR') likely would not change the court's broad philosophical balance. But her views on same-sex marriage, gun rights, financial and environmental regulation, executive power and other polarizing issues could help shape judicial rulings for years, perhaps decades, to come.
Sotomayor is a graduate of Princeton and Yale who served as a prosecutor, corporate litigator and federal district judge before joining the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York a decade ago. She would become the nation's 111th justice and would be the third woman to hold a seat on the court.
At the heart of the fight over her nomination will be a debate over the role that a judge's experience should play in rendering decisions. Although Obama said Tuesday that "a judge's job is to interpret, not make law," his emphasis on finding a nominee with "empathy" has generated criticism from Republicans, who saw that as code for legislating personal views from the bench.
As her selection was announced, Sotomayor did not retreat from her view that judges ought to look at the impact of their rulings. "I strive never to forget the real-world consequences of my decisions on individuals, businesses and government," she said at Obama's side.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said the Senate would not be a "rubber stamp" and promised that Republicans would "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."
Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, told Fox News that he was "uneasy with" Sotomayor's approach and expressed concern that if Obama appointed two or three more justices like her, it would shape the court "in a way that would be different from our heritage so far."
In one of her most memorable rulings as federal district judge, in 1995, Sotomayor ruled with major league baseball players over owners in a labor strike that had led to the cancellation of the World Series. "Some say that Judge Sotomayor saved baseball," Obama said.
Obama selected Sotomayor from a field dominated by women as he sought to add a second female justice to the court. Advisers culled through writings of 40 candidates before narrowing the list to nine who were actually contacted, officials said. From there, Obama chose four finalists, who were spirited into the White House to meet with him secretly last week.
The president conducted one-on-one interviews with Diane Wood, a federal appeals judge, and Elena Kagan, his solicitor general, last Tuesday, and then Sotomayor and Janet Napolitano, the homeland security secretary, two days later. Each session in the Oval Office lasted an hour, officials said. Vice President Joe Biden also interviewed the four.
To dispense with any health concerns about Sotomayor, officials said the White House contacted her doctor and independent experts to determine whether her diabetes might be problematic and concluded it would not. The Obama team also interviewed colleagues on the 2nd Circuit to check out reports that she was difficult to get along with and was reassured it was not true.
Sotomayor was the only finalist whom Obama had never met before last week. She spent seven hours at the White House last Thursday, talking with him and his aides and by Friday, the president told advisers he was leaning toward her but wanted to think about it over the weekend, officials said.
At 8 p.m. on Monday, he told aides he had made his decision, and at 9 p.m. he called Sotomayor from his study in the White House residence. He then called the runners-up.
Obama introduced his nominee Tuesday morning after calling top Republicans and Democrats in the Senate.
Her mother, Celina Sotomayor, who moved to New York from Puerto Rico during World War II, wiped away tears as the president announced the nomination. Obama said that Sotomayor's father died when she was 9, and that her mother, a nurse, often worked two jobs while raising Sonia and her brother, Juan, who is now a doctor.
After praising Sotomayor's intellect and "commitment to impartial justice," Obama said he wanted a nominee who had "experience being tested by obstacles and barriers, by hardship and misfortune (and) experience insisting, persisting and ultimately overcoming those barriers."
"It is experience that can give a person a common touch and a sense of compassion, an understanding of how the world works and how ordinary people live. And that is why it is a necessary ingredient in the kind of justice we need on the Supreme Court."
Sotomayor said that her experiences "have helped me appreciate the variety of perspectives that present themselves in every case that I hear."
Times staff writer Wes Allison contributed to this report.