President Barack Obama's nominee for the Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor, on Monday promised to apply the law impartially as Republicans questioned her objectivity on the first day of her confirmation hearings.
Sotomayor, 55, is widely expected to win confirmation and become the first Hispanic justice on the ideologically-divided Supreme Court, whose nine members rule on key Constitutional issues such as the death penalty, abortion and gun rights.
Sotomayor, nominated by Obama on May 26, recounted her uniquely American resume as the daughter of Puerto Rican parents who moved from New York housing projects through Ivy League classrooms and on to become an appeals court judge.
And she sought to defang Republican critics, who have portrayed her nomination as part of a plan by Obama to appoint liberal activists to the Supreme Court to drive changes in social policy.
Throughout my seventeen years on the bench, I have witnessed the human consequences of my decisions. Those decisions have been made not to serve the interests of any one litigant, but always to serve the larger interest of impartial justice, Sotomayor said in her brief opening remarks.
In the past month, many Senators have asked me about my judicial philosophy. It is simple: fidelity to the law. The task of a judge is not to make the law - it is to apply the law.
Sotomayor's statement came at the end of the first day of hearings in the Senate Judiciary Committee, where Republicans are fighting an uphill battle against her nomination. The hearings are expected to continue for several days.
Republicans have all but conceded they lack the votes to stop the Democratic-run Senate from approving Sotomayor to the life-time post. Many on both sides of the aisle agree she has outstanding legal qualifications.
Unless you have a complete meltdown, you're going to get confirmed, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham told Sotomayor, saying he himself had still not decided how he would vote.
Other Republicans had no such doubts, and brought up what they said were elements of Sotomayor's record that showed she would put personal bias or empathy above legal statute.
I believe our legal system is at a dangerous crossroads, said Senator Jeff Sessions, the top ranking Republican on the committee.
Down one path is the traditional American legal system, so admired around the world, where judges impartially apply the law to the facts without regard to their own personal views.
Down the other path lies a Brave New World where words have no true meaning and judges are free to decide what facts they choose to see. In this world, a judge is free to push his or her own political and social agenda.
A SUCCESS STORY
Democrats said Sotomayor -- who appeared at the hearing with her mother and members of her extended family -- embodies a success story in which all Americans can take pride.
She is a judge in which all Americans can have confidence. She has been a judge for all Americans and will be a Justice for all Americans, said the committee's chairman, Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy.
Other Democrats highlighted her experience and rejected repeated Republican assertions that she might use a Supreme Court seat as a judicial activist who overrides laws in favor of political policy.
At this point, perhaps we should all accept that the best definition of a 'judicial activist' is a judge who decides a case in a way you don't like, Democratic Senator Russ Feingold said, noting a series of controversial rulings forced through by the current conservative majority on the high court.
Small groups of supporters and opponents gathered near the hearing building and inside the proceedings were interrupted several times by audience members who began yelling slogans opposing abortion. All were quickly ejected by security.
Sotomayor received the top rating from the influential American Bar Association and polls show a slim majority of Americans believe she should be confirmed for job.
But Sotomayor's positions on prominent divisive legal issues including abortion and gun rights remain murky. Most observers expect her to step into the liberal shoes of retired Justice David Souter keeping the court's ideological balance -- now tilted 5-4 in favor of conservatives -- unchanged.
The nomination ran into turbulence when critics circulated copies of an early speech in which she said she thought a wise Latina could reach better legal conclusions than a white man because of her life background.
Republicans seized on the comment as evidence Sotomayor's behavior on the bench would be ruled by bias and emotion rather than strict interpretation of statute.
The debate was further inflamed when the Supreme Court recently overruled a lower court ruling approved by Sotomayor herself and said the city of New Haven, Connecticut erred in throwing out firefighter exam results that did not produce enough qualified black candidates.