WASHINGTON — Judge Sonia Sotomayor opened her case for confirmation to the Supreme Court on Monday by assuring senators that she believes a judge's job "is not to make law" but "to apply the law," as Republicans and Democrats used her nomination to debate the role of the judiciary.
Responding for the first time to weeks of Republican criticism, Sotomayor rejected the notion that personal biases determine her rulings and said her 17 years on the bench showed that she "applied the law to the facts at hand." The empathy many critics have cited, she said, helps her grasp a case, not twist it to suit an agenda.
"My personal and professional experiences help me to listen and understand," she told the Senate Judiciary Committee, "with the law always commanding the result in every case."
Before she spoke, Republicans made clear they would use the hearings to portray her as willing to tilt the scales of justice to address her personal feelings about the cases before her.
They bored in on her comment in a speech in 2001 that a "wise Latina" would make better decisions in some cases than a white male, as well as other speeches in which she emphasized her gender, ethnicity and compassion. Four of the panel's seven Republicans invoked the "wise Latina" line to criticize her, with one, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, saying "my career would have been over" if he had said something like that.
The ranking Republican on the panel, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, said: "Call it empathy, call it prejudice or call it sympathy, but whatever it is, it's not law. In truth, it's more akin to politics. And politics has no place in the courtroom."
The start of hearings on President Barack Obama's nomination of Sotomayor, who would be the first Hispanic and third woman to sit on the Supreme Court, was permeated with electoral politics, with Republicans taking pains not to offend Hispanic voters even as they sought to assure conservatives that they were vigorously challenging Sotomayor and Obama on ideological grounds.
The session also quickly became a proxy for a larger struggle over the court. At times, it seemed the hearing was devoted more to refighting past battles and setting the stage for future ones, a recognition that barring an unforeseen development, Sotomayor's confirmation seems assured in a Senate with a commanding Democratic majority.
Graham told Sotomayor that she need only play it safe this week to win the seat. "Unless you have a complete meltdown, you're going to get confirmed," he said.
Given that sense of inevitability, Republicans were intent on using the hearing to relitigate the successful Democratic effort in 2002 and 2003 to block the nomination by President George W. Bush of a Hispanic lawyer, Miguel Estrada, to a federal appeals court seat, and Obama's votes as a senator against Bush's nominees. For their part, Democrats used the forum to complain that Chief Justice John Roberts has led the court in a more conservative direction than he indicated in his hearings four years ago.
And both sides framed the debate not just for this nomination but for the next ones. Liberals hoped to build a lopsided victory to give Obama room to choose someone to their liking if he gets another vacancy, while conservatives hoped to draw a line making him think twice about picking someone like Sotomayor again.
Mixed into the proceedings was the historic nature of Sotomayor's arrival as the daughter of Puerto Rican parents who grew up in a Bronx public housing project.
As he introduced her, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., choked up with emotion over her life story. The committee chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., compared her to Louis Brandeis, the first Jewish justice, and Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American justice.
"The progression of my life has been uniquely American," Sotomayor said in an opening statement that lasted about five minutes, describing how her father died when she was young, leaving her to be raised by a single mother who emphasized education.
She said that the values she learned as a child guided her as a judge, but, recognizing criticism of her work with activist groups like the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, she added that "my career as an advocate ended" with her appointment to the federal district court by President George H.W. Bush in 1992.
Her judicial philosophy, she said, is "simple: fidelity to the law."
"The task of a judge," she continued, "is not to make law, it is to apply the law."
Sotomayor, 55, who was elevated in 1998 to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York by President Bill Clinton, sat with her right leg encased in a cast because of a broken ankle. Behind her were her mother, stepfather, brother and other relatives.
Obama selected Sotomayor to succeed Justice David Souter, who retired. The first day of hearings was devoted to opening statements. Today, the committee begins three days of questioning Sotomayor and witnesses for and against her.
Wary of offending Hispanic voters, Republicans praised Sotomayor's life story while framing their criticism of her judicial philosophy — and Obama's. "I respectfully submit that President Obama is simply outside the mainstream in his statements about how judges should decide cases," said Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, lamented the Democratic success in blocking Estrada's nomination and focused on Obama's votes against GOP nominees because of their judicial philosophy.
While Republicans focused on Estrada, Democrats focused on Roberts, whose name came up 18 times.