WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama's pick to fill his first U.S. Supreme Court vacancy, Sonia Sotomayor, goes before a Senate hearing on Monday with most people betting she already has enough votes to win confirmation.
Sotomayor, now an appeals court judge, stands ready to become the first Hispanic justice on the court which rules on Constitutional questions as well as controversial issues including abortion, gun control and the death penalty.
Sotomayor, 55, goes into Monday's hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee with plenty of momentum. She received the top rating from the influential American Bar Association, and new polls show a slim majority of Americans believe she should be confirmed for the lifetime job.
But the hearing, which begins at 10 a.m. EDT/1400 GMT and is expected to last most of the week, should provide plenty of political drama as Republicans seek to spotlight what they fear will be Sotomayor's -- and by extension Obama's -- activist approach to the law.
Americans expect and should receive equal treatment under the law and Americans want judges who understand their role is to interpret the law, not write it, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement.
Sotomayor's positions on key legal questions including abortion and gun rights remain murky, although most observers expect her to step right into the liberal shoes of retired Justice David Souter -- thereby keeping the ideological balance of the court unchanged.
Senate Judiciary committee members will try to glean more details about her legal thinking, as well as grill her about one of the most contentious issues in the United States -- racial preferences or affirmative action.
Republicans say publicly her confirmation is not a done deal but few if any believe they can muster the votes needed to stop it.
Democrats hailed Sotomayor's nomination, saying she has exemplary qualifications and -- as the daughter of Puerto Rican parents from a New York City housing project -- a life story in sync the changing face of the country.
Hers is a success story in which all Americans can take pride, Judiciary Committee Chairman, Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, said in an advance text of his opening statements on Monday.
In truth, we do not have to speculate about what kind of a Justice she will be because we have seen the kind of judge she has been. 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.
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 that Sotomayor's behavior on the bench would be ruled by bias, empathy and emotion rather than strict interpretation of statute.
How can a judge objectively apply the law if she believes there are multiple realities and multiple versions of the truth? Republican Senator John Cornyn said recently on the Senate floor.
The debate was further inflamed when the Supreme Court last month 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.
Stephen Wermiel, a law professor at American University Washington College of Law, said the hearings would likely focus on how Sotomayor -- and other potential Obama high court nominees in the future -- envision the role of the Supreme Court in U.S. society.
The Democrats are trying to say this is a great nominee because she's got great experience and this incredible life, Wermiel said.
The Republicans want to say that shouldn't matter. If you are telling us that her life story matters then we are concerned.
(Editing by Bill Trott and Eric Walsh)