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Sotomayor Girds for a Showdown at Confirmation Hearings for Supreme Court Post

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By Robert Barnes, Michael D. Shear and Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, July 11, 2009

White House officials spent hours this week preparing Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor for what they anticipate will be a concerted Republican effort to portray her as an "activist" jurist and will counter that her 17 years on the bench are a display of judicial restraint.

Slated to become the country's first Hispanic justice, Sotomayor has spent long hours in a cramped conference room on the third floor of the Old Executive Office Building, her fractured ankle propped on a trash can as lawyers took turns peppering her with questions.

Outnumbered Senate Republicans have found the 55-year-old Sotomayor an elusive target in the six weeks since President Obama made her his first nominee for the court and are hard-pressed to offer a scenario that would lead to her defeat in a chamber where their party claims only 40 members.

But Republican lawmakers and conservative strategists say the seven GOP members of the Judiciary Committee will press Sotomayor on issues that appeal to their conservative base -- such as gun owners' rights, property rights, the use of international law in deciding cases -- while trying to build a case that Sotomayor's political views influence her decision-making on the bench.

Republicans will not launch "a personal attack," Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), the ranking minority member of the committee, told reporters Friday. "It will be focused on her views and writings. I will ask her if she agrees with the opinions of the organizations she supported."

He said the judge will be challenged to defend remarks she has made in speeches and her leadership role with the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund. She resigned from that group's board when she became a federal judge in 1992.

Susan Davies and Cassandra Butts, two senior lawyers in the White House counsel's office, have led much of the questioning during lengthy preparation sessions that will continue into the weekend. Ron Klain, Biden's chief of staff, and Gregory B. Craig, Obama's counsel, were in and out of the room, sources said.

The goal of the briefings, according to several Democratic and administration sources, is to ready Sotomayor for her first public response to Republican charges of bias in her legal philosophy and to defend the president's vision of a judiciary that leavens the rule of law with an empathy for real-life consequences.

"She's approached judging from the real world, not ivory towers," said one Democratic source, describing how Democrats intend to steer the theme of the hearings. "Instead of big theories, she's applied the rule of law."

White House officials who are shepherding Sotomayor through the process said they have paid close attention to the questions she received during meetings with 89 senators, including each of the members of the judiciary committee. They have also watched the public comments and floor speeches by Republican senators in an attempt to divine GOP strategy.

One theory among Congressional Democrats is that Republican senators will "run out of gas" very quickly and have little appetite for a continued attack on her qualifications as the week wears on. Others believe Republicans will try to portray Sotomayor as a judge whose writings and court decisions suggest a bias. Either way, one congressional source said, Democrats are "preparing for the worst case."

Republican questions will be aimed primarily at Sotomayor. But the hearings may also be used to debate Obama's intention for reshaping a court that may well see more vacancies during his tenure.

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