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Party lines

Supreme Court | Senators stick to party lines in questioning Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor at her first hearing

WASHINGTON-Sonia Sotomayor entered her first Supreme Court nomination hearing today to a crowd of media and a barrage of camera shutter clicks before taking her seat in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee for the third time in her career.

After listening to senator after senator spend the morning discussing their own judicial philosophies, Sotomayor, in her brief statement, told the committee that her own philosophy is "fidelity to the law." She added, in attempt to reassure skeptical Republican lawmakers, that the task of a judge is not to make the law, but to apply the law.

"My personal and professional experiences help me listen and understand, with the law always commanding the result in every case," she said.

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The 17 senators on the committee spent the day sticking to party lines, using their speeches to either outline the qualities of President Barack Obama's nominee or express concern over her possible confirmation.

Senator Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., pointed out the seeming inevitability of the nominee's confirmation in a Democrat-controlled Senate: "Unless you have a complete meltdown, you're going to get confirmed," he told Sotomayor, who replied with a brief half-smile.

Nevertheless, Republicans outlined some of the serious questions and issues they will be raising during this week's hearings, including her controversial comments about gender and ethnicity influencing her decisions.

"Just five members can declare the meaning of our Constitution, bending or changing its meaning from what the people intended," said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., the top Republican on the committee, emphasizing the importance of conducting a thorough hearing process.

Democrats called Sotomayor courageous and compassionate. They argued that her record leaves no doubt that she has the ability to be a fair and accurate justice.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., opened the hearing by commending Sotomayor for her "tough, but fair record." Leahy led the Democrats' in accusing Republicans of twisting her words and placing a higher importance on partisanship than a fair hearing.

"Let no one demean this extraordinary woman," Leahy said.

Republicans promised to be respectful and honorable towards the nominee, but said they would not avoid the tough questions. They pointed out that the Supreme Court has reversed or vacated 80 percent of her opinions that have been up for review, by a total vote count of 52-19.

Republicans quoted many of Sotomayor's controversial comments about policy being made in the Court of Appeals, as well as her public claim that her unique experiences give her a better ability to judge.

"I will not vote for an individual nominated by any president who is not fully committed to fairness and impartiality towards everyone who appears before them," Sessions 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."

Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wisc., said the Republicans' charge that the nominee will be biased because of her racial and ethnic heritage is unfounded and that her comments have been taken out of context.

The nominee sat formally in front of the committee all day, her broken ankle propped up on a bench, a smile only escaping her formal demeanor on a few occasions. After four hours of statements and proceedings, the two Democrat senators from New York, Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, finally introduced the Bronx native.

Sotomayor thanked her family, friends and colleagues, and acknowledged her mother for the opportunity she has been given. She said she has seen the judicial system from a variety of perspectives in her career as a lawyer and a judge. "Throughout my seventeen years on the bench, I have witnessed the human consequences of my decisions," said Sotomayor, 55, who only spoke for about five minutes. "The progression of my life has been uniquely American."

The Democrats took many opportunities to compare this hearing with that of Chief Justice John Roberts, and criticized Roberts for his statement during his nomination hearing that he would judge like an umpire, "calling balls and strikes."

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., said a judge's duty is not simply to call balls and strikes, but to define the strike zone. He said Sotomayor's diverse background and long judicial experience qualify her for this task.

Republicans accused the Democrats of being hypocritical. While Democrats are urging them to allow the process to move quickly and smoothly, Republicans say that Sotomayor's nomination should be examined just as much as previous justices and should not be taken for granted.

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