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Senate Begins Debate on Sotomayor for US Supreme Court

The U.S. Senate is has begun what could be a week-long debate on the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States. If confirmed by the Senate, Judge Sotomayor would become the first Hispanic and only the third woman to serve on the high court.

Sotomayor is the daughter of Puerto Rican parents, who grew up poor in the Bronx, a section of New York City. She later attended prestigious universities and excelled in the legal profession before being nominated for the federal bench in 1991 by former Republican President George H. W. Bush.

Last week, when the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 13 to 6 to approve her nomination and send it the full Senate for a vote, only one Republican - Senator Lindsey Graham - voted in her favor.

In this week's Senate floor debate, Sotomayor is expected to receive the support of six Republicans, out of the 40 Republicans in the Senate minority.

But Republicans opposing the nomination are expected to repeat assertions made during Sotomayor's confirmation hearing that she would be a judicial activist, bringing a liberal bias to the court.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell set the tone, saying her writings and statements indicate she is committed to a standard of "empathy" rather than equal justice under the law.

"If empathy is the new standard, then the burden is on nominees like her who are chosen on that basis to demonstrate a firm commitment to equal justice under the law," he said. "On the contrary, Judge Sotomayor has openly doubted the ability of judges to adhere to this core principle and she has even doubted the wisdom of doing so."

Democrats are expected to cite Sotomayor's academic record and her 17 years as a federal judge, saying her rulings demonstrate she is committed to upholding the law and that she would not permit her personal background or philosophies to influence her decisions.

Senate Majority Leader, Democrat Harry Reid said he was disappointed that no more than six Republicans had announced they would support the nominee.

"Judge Sonia Sotomayor is an American of tremendous qualifications," he said. "Both her academic record and her career experience clearly are second to none."

Since President Barack Obama nominated her for the Supreme Court, Sotomayor has battled allegations that her past statements to young law students indicated she would bring a bias to the court.

Republicans also assert that some of Sotomayor's rulings, including those involving gun rights and one involving a reverse employment discrimination lawsuit filed by a group of mostly white firefighters, were lacking in legal reasoning.

Sotomayor said she regretted one comment, in which she suggested a "wise Latina, with the richness of her experiences, would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life."

Saying she unequivocally does not believe "that any ethnic, racial or gender group has an advantage in sound judging," Sotomayor admitted that personal experiences play a role but that the rule of law must prevail.

"I do believe that life experiences are important to the process of judging, they help you to understand and listen, but that the law requires a result and it will command you to the facts that are relevant to the disposition of the case," she said.

In casting the sole Republican vote for Sotomayor in the Senate Judiciary Committee, Lindsey Graham said Sotomayor's past comments should be placed in context.

"How many of my speeches would unnerve people on the other side? Probably almost all of them," he said. "The speeches had to be put in context of her judicial record. And I do not want to set a standard here where people aspiring to be a judge will never have a thought, never take on an unpopular cause."

With Democrats holding a 60 vote majority in the Senate, an important margin that technically allows them to overcome a minority filibuster, or delaying tactic, Sotomayor's confirmation is all but assured.

In addition to being the first Hispanic to serve on the high court, Sotomayor would become only the third woman, after currently-serving Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and the retired Sandra Day O'Connor to be appointed to the Supreme Court.