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Historic Nomination: Hispanic Sonia Sotomayor as Justice

Ben Feller | 5/28/2009, 6:28 a.m.

Reaching for history, President Barack Obama on Tues., May 26 chose federal appeals judge Sonia Sotomayor to be the first Hispanic justice on the Supreme Court, championing her as a compassionate, seasoned jurist whose against-the-odds life journey affirms the American dream.

Republicans, who will decide whether to make a fight of her confirmation, said they want thorough hearings. However, defeating Sotomayor would be difficult in the heavily Democratic Senate, and even a major effort to block her confirmation could be risky for a party still reeling from last year's elections. Hispanics are the fastest-growing part of the population and increasingly active politically.

Obama, eager to begin putting his imprint on the court, beamed as he introduced Sotomayor as a judge who displays both an impressive mind and heart, a jurist who takes on cases with "an understanding of how the world works and how ordinary people live."

He raved about her credentials, saying she would start on the job with more experience on the bench than any of the current nine justices had when they began.

The White House tableau itself was history: A Black president and his White vice president, Joe Biden, striding onto a stage in the ornate East Room with the nominee who grew up in a New York housing project where her parents had moved from Puerto Rico.

At 54, Sotomayor, would join Ruth Bader Ginsburg as the second woman on the court and just the third in its history. She would replace liberal Justice David Souter, thereby maintaining the court's ideological divide. A number of important cases have been divided by 5-4 majorities, with conservative- and liberal-leaning justices split 4-4 and Justice Anthony Kennedy providing the decisive vote.

Senate Republicans pledged to give her a fair hearing but cautioned they would question her rigorously and not be rushed. The president, whose approval ratings trump those of Congress, challenged the Senate to move swiftly and confirm her before Congress' August break so she can be in place when the court begins its new term in October.

Democrats hold 59 votes in the Senate, more than enough to confirm Sotomayor but not quite enough to stop a vote-blocking filibuster if Republicans should attempt one.

"We will thoroughly examine her record to ensure she understands that the role of a jurist in our democracy is to apply the law evenhandedly, despite their own feelings or personal or political preferences," said top Senate Republican, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

In one of her most notable decisions as an appellate judge, she sided last year with the city of New Haven, Conn., in a discrimination case brought by White firefighters. The city threw out results of a promotion exam because too few minorities scored high enough. Coincidentally, that case is now before the Supreme Court.

Her ruling had already drawn criticism from conservatives and is likely to play a role in her confirmation hearing.

Still, seven of the Senate's current Republicans voted to confirm her for the appeals court in 1998, and she was first nominated to be a federal judge by Republican President George H.W. Bush.

"I am an ordinary person who has been blessed with extraordinary opportunities and experiences," Sotomayor said.

Born in the South Bronx, Sotomayor lost her father at a young age and watched her mother work two jobs to provide for her and her brother. She attended Princeton University and Yale Law School, and held positions as a commercial litigator, federal district judge and appellate judge.

"What you've shown in your life is that it doesn't matter where you come from, what you look like or what challenges life throws your way," Obama said as Sotomayor stood at his side at a packed White House event. "No dream is beyond reach in the United States of America."

Obama's selection was not just about the next justice but also the new president.

He had not met Sotomayor until he interviewed her on Thurs., May 21 at the White House. She was the only one of the four finalists he did not know. But in addition to her other qualifications, she offered a politically attractive background and appealing narrative.

Justices on the nine-member court receive lifetime appointments and can have a profound influence on daily life. Sotomayor would be a new voice on the cases that often reflect divisions in the broader society, including national security, abortion, gay rights and privacy.

Associated Press writers David Espo, Darlene Superville, Ben Evans, Jesse J. Holland and Julie Hirschfeld Davis contributed to this story.