In Senate Confirmation Hearings, Sotomayor Pledges 'Fidelity to the Law'

Judge Sonia Sotomayor was sworn in as a Justice of the Supreme Court on August 8, making her the first Latina and third woman to serve on the nation's highest court. Though Sotomayor faced intense questioning from Republicans, the Senate approved her nomination by a wide margin.
By Robert Barnes, Amy Goldstein and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor said yesterday that a simple "fidelity to the law" is at the heart of her judicial philosophy, as her confirmation hearings began with Senate Republicans delivering a surprisingly strong critique of her fairness and President Obama's reliance on ephemeral qualities of life experience and "empathy" in nominating her.

The first day of hearings was a pageant of prepared statements and carefully choreographed strategy, but the contours of the week's proceedings became clear:

Democrats portrayed Sotomayor as a role model "for all Americans," a seasoned jurist with a modest and restrained approach who, if anything, might balance a court that has swung too far to the right. Republicans sought to cast doubt on Sotomayor's impartiality, saying her statements and rulings have forecast the activist approach she would take when freed of having to follow precedent.

Never far from the surface was the historic nature of the day, and the fact that of the 12 Democrats and seven Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee, all but two of those who will question the first Hispanic woman nominated to the nation's highest court are white men.

Signs of the change were easy to find: bits of Spanish spoken by those who stood in line amid the stark marble of the modern Hart Senate Office Building; a family in the front-row seats behind the nominee unlike that of any of the 110 justices who have come before; and an acknowledgment from both Democrats and Republicans of what Sotomayor called the only-in-America nature of her nomination.

Silent for seven weeks after Obama nominated her, the 55-year-old judge reared in the public housing projects of the South Bronx read a careful seven-minute statement designed to be noncontroversial.

"The task of a judge is not to make law. It is to apply the law," Sotomayor said. "And it is clear, I believe, that my record in two courts reflects my rigorous commitment to interpreting the Constitution according to its terms, interpreting statutes according to their terms and Congress's intent, and hewing faithfully to precedents established by the Supreme Court and by my circuit court."

Sotomayor said that in 17 years as a district judge and then on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit in New York, she has sought to "strengthen both the rule of law and faith in the impartiality of our justice system."

Sen. Jeff Sessions (Ala.), the committee's ranking Republican, praised Sotomayor's statement as "from the heart and direct," but earlier he had made clear that Republicans will challenge her speeches about how life experiences can form a judge's view of the law, and Obama's statement that understanding the real-life consequences of a decision is a necessary tool for a judge.

"I will not vote for, and no senator should vote for, anyone who will not render justice impartially," Sessions said. "Call it empathy, call it prejudice or call it sympathy, but whatever it is, it's not law," he said. "In truth, it's more akin to politics, and politics has no place in the courtroom."

Sotomayor delivered what seemed like an understated response: "My personal and professional experiences help me to listen and understand, with the law always commanding the result in every case."

While the hearings may become contentious, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) was upfront about the likely outcome: "Unless you have a complete meltdown," he told the nominee, "you are going to get confirmed."

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On the cusp of history, Sonia Sotomayor listened intently in a packed Senate hearing room Monday as lawmakers began confirmation hearings on her appointment as the nation's first Hispanic Supreme Court justice. Video by AP
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