Judge Sonia Sotomayor, President Barack Obama's nominee to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States, has pledged impartiality and fidelity to the law if she is confirmed as the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice and only the third woman to sit on the high court. Sotomayor responded to critics as she completed the first day of her nomination hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Sotomayor faces a week of tough questions from lawmakers, although she is widely expected to be confirmed by the full Senate after this week's questioning before the committee.
In nominating her, President Obama cited Sotomayor's rise from a poor Puerto Rican family in the Bronx section of New York City to elite universities, and her 17 years as a federal judge.
Sotomayor referred to that background in her opening statement.
"The progression of my life has been uniquely American," she said. "My parents left Puerto Rico during World War II. I grew up in modest circumstances in a Bronx housing project. My father, a factory worker with a third grade education, passed away when I was nine years old."
President Obama has also said that Sotomayor would bring a commitment to interpreting the law without a particular ideology or agenda.
The Democrat chairing the Judiciary Committee, Senator Patrick Leahy, referred to criticism from Republicans that Sotomayor's statements and rulings indicate her personal background might lead her to decide cases unfairly.
"I would trust that all members of this committee here today will reject the efforts of partisans and outside pressure groups that have sought to create a caricature of Judge Sotomayor, while belittling her record and her achievements, and her intelligence," he said.
Republicans, such as Senator Jeff Sessions, assert that approval of Sotomayor would mark a trend in which more value is placed on court nominees who might apply biases based on their personal lives than a commitment to judging impartially and interpreting the law.
"I will not vote for, and no senator should vote for, an individual nominated by any president who believes it is acceptable for a judge to allow their personal background, gender, prejudices or sympathies to sway their decision in favor of or against the parties before the court," he said. "In my view, such a philosophy is disqualifying."
Sotomayor's critics also point to President Obama's statement in nominating her that "empathy" is "an essential ingredient for arriving at just decisions and outcomes." Republicans say this supports their assertion that she would not decide cases fairly.
Sotomayor addressed the criticisms, saying her decisions have always been based on impartiality and a commitment to the law.
"In the past month, many senators have asked me about my judicial philosophy," she said. "[It is] simple: fidelity to the law. The task of the judge is not to make the law, it is to apply the law. And it is clear, I believe, that my record in two courts reflects my rigorous commitment to interpreting the Constitution [of the United States] 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. In each case I have heard, I have applied the law to the facts at hand."
Senator Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, said Sotomayor satisfies a range of requirements to serve on the court.
"Broad and relevant experience, you satisfy that,' she said. "Second, a strong and deep knowledge of the law and the Constitution, you satisfy that. Third, a firm commitment to follow the law and you have, and all of the statistics indicate that. A judicial temperament and integrity, and you have both of those. And finally, mainstream legal reasoning."
Issues on which Sotomayor will be questioned include her ruling, as part of a three-judge panel, against 19 white and one Hispanic firefighters in New Haven, Connecticut who claimed they were discriminated against. The Supreme Court recently overturned that ruling in 5 to 4 decision.
She will also have numerous opportunities to explain her thinking behind a 2001 statement in which she said, "A wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who has not lived that life."
Thirty-one witnesses will testify on Sotomayor's nomination, which is President Obama's first opportunity to shape the Supreme Court.
She would replace Justice David Souter who announced his retirement earlier this year, and would become only the second woman to currently serve on the court, joining Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
With Democrats holding a 60-vote majority, eventual Senate approval of Sotomayor's nomination appears assured. One key Republican senator, Lindsey Graham, said that barring a "meltdown" by Sotomayor during the hearing, she will be confirmed.
Some Republicans are likely to support the nomination, amid concerns about alienating Hispanic voters who are an important political factor in key U.S. states won by President Obama last year.