WASHINGTON - U.S. Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor will begin on July 13, a top Democrat said on Tuesday, and a Republican lawmaker predicted she would be easily approved.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy unveiled the date after talks with his panel's top Republican on when to start the committee's public questioning of President Barack Obama's nominee to replace retiring Justice David Souter.
Mel Martinez, the only Hispanic Republican senator, praised the longtime federal judge and said he expected her to be confirmed as the first Hispanic on the highest U.S. court.
I would expect that she will be confirmed ... with pretty good numbers, Martinez said after a Capitol Hill meeting with her.
Martinez said he would withhold final judgment until after the confirmation hearing, likely to last at least several days.
Democrats control 59 of the 99 Senate votes and need the support of just one Republican to muster the 60 votes necessary to prevent any procedural roadblock.
Leahy said he expected the full Senate to vote to confirm Sotomayor before Congress begins its month-long recess on August 6.
Senate Republican leaders had urged the hearing be delayed until September to give them time to review thousands of her court cases.
But Leahy said other Supreme Court nominees have moved through the confirmation process more quickly and this should also hold true for Sotomayor, particularly so she can respond to complaints that her rulings may be based on her personal opinions rather than the law.
Sotomayor has drawn fire for comments in which she has said her life as a Latina woman may help her reach better decisions than a white male without such experiences.
Some well-known conservative activists, including former Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh, have accused her of racism -- although Gingrich later backed off the claim.
Senate Republicans have rejected such characterizations but maintain she will need to answer plenty of questions at her confirmation hearing.
There is no reason to unduly delay consideration of this well-qualified nominee, Leahy said in announcing the hearings will begin next month.
Indeed, given the attacks on her character, there are compelling reasons to proceed even ahead of this schedule. She deserves the earliest opportunity to respond to those attacks, Leahy said.
Liberal and moderate supporters praise Sotomayor as an independent-minded judge well-suited to replace Souter, who has often sided with liberals on the divided nine-member court.
But conservative activists and some Republican senators warn some of her public comments indicate she likely would rule based on her emotions rather than the law.
Martinez rose to her defense, saying, I understand what she is trying to say, which is the richness of her experience forms who she is. It forms who I am.
Martinez said, The question really is will she rule as a Latin woman or will she rule as a judge based on precedent, based on the law and obviously the facts before the court.
Martinez said the record show her rulings are based on the law.
At the White House complex, eight law enforcement groups endorsed Sotomayor, a former prosecutor and private attorney appointed as a federal district judge in 1991 and elevated in 1998 to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.