WASHINGTON – The battle is on between conservative and liberal interest groups to define little-known federal judge Sonia Sotomayor before senators — away from the capital on a weeklong break — return to weigh in on the fate of the woman who would be the Supreme Court's first Hispanic.
Republican senators are speaking in cautious but measured tones about Sotomayor's qualifications and fitness for the court while Democrats join the White House in singing her praises. But the outside organizations that have a major stake in a high-court fight are taking up warring positions.
Conservative groups brand her an activist who would impose her own views and ethnic and gender biases on her interpretation of the law and the Constitution.
"Equal justice under law — or under attack?" a Web ad by the conservative group Judicial Confirmation Network asks. "America deserves better" than Sotomayor, it concludes.
Liberal groups hit back with their own campaign to paint Sotomayor as an experienced and fair judge whose background gives her a better understanding of how the court affects real people and their lives.
"Principled. Fair-minded. Independent," asserts a TV spot by the liberal Center for Constitutional Values.
The noise drowned out a more nuanced and politically sensitive discussion to come on just how far Republicans will want to go in opposing Sotomayor. Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the senior Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said he doesn't foresee a filibuster to block a vote on Sotomayor, and Democrats appear to have more than enough votes to confirm her.
Nevertheless, Democrats, signaling that they intend to score political points against Republicans in the debate over Sotomayor's nomination, e-mailed contributors telling them that the GOP was "ready to obstruct." Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., the head of the party's Senate campaign committee, wrote that "we have a fight on our hands" over Sotomayor's nomination.
The judge's Capitol Hill debut could come as early as next week, when top aides said she could begin making personal "courtesy calls" to Senate leaders and members of the Judiciary Committee. For now, with many of the senators who hold the judge's fate in their hands scattered in home-states across the country or destinations around the world during their weeklong congressional break, there's little public partisan debate about Sotomayor's nomination.
In private, the 54-year-old Sotomayor — a veteran of the federal bench who was reared in Bronx housing projects and attended Princeton and Yale en route to the highest echelons of the legal profession — phoned key senators as she began preparing to face them in high-stakes hearings. Since President Barack Obama announced her nomination Tuesday, she has spoken with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, as well as Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., the Judiciary chairman, and Sessions.
Staffers on the Judiciary panel, which will run hearings on Sotomayor's nomination, huddled researching her record and released a detailed, 10-page questionnaire the judge will have to answer in advance of the public session she will undergo with senators. Democratic aides on the panel planned to meet Thursday with Cynthia Hogan, Vice President Joe Biden's counsel, to plot strategy.
The questionnaire asks Sotomayor to divulge personal, financial and employment information and to provide copies of all her writings, speeches, interviews and opinions. She also has to list any potential conflicts of interest and describe how she would resolve them and reveal details about her nomination, including whether she was asked by anyone how she would rule on any potential Supreme Court case or issue and how she responded.
Meanwhile, the White House is continuing the careful packaging of Sotomayor that officials set in motion with the announcement of her selection. They arranged a conference call Wednesday with six legal experts and attorneys who are Sotomayor boosters to rebut charges that she would bring a personal agenda to the court or strive to use rulings to make policy.
"Judge Sotomayor is not the kind of judge who thinks it is her job to fix every social ill in the world," said Kevin Russell, a lawyer who has argued before her.
Conservatives pointed with particular concern to a 2001 speech Sotomayor made at the University of California at Berkeley Law School in which she said, "Our experiences as women and people of color affect our decisions."
In discussing discrimination cases, Sotomayor also referred to a remark at times attributed to former Justice Sandra Day O'Connor that "a wise old man and a wise old woman reach the same conclusion" and said that she didn't necessarily agree.
"First, as Professor Martha Minnow has noted, there can never be a universal definition of wise," Sotomayor said. "Second, I would hope that a wise Latina woman 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."
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich suggested Sotomayor was a racist, writing in a blog posting: "Imagine a judicial nominee said 'my experience as a white man makes me better than a Latina woman.' Wouldn't they have to withdraw? New racism is no better than old racism. A white man racist nominee would be forced to withdraw. Latina woman racist should also withdraw."
At the White House, spokesman Robert Gibbs labored to answer questions about Sotomayor's statement, ultimately resorting to admonishing reporters not to pluck one remark out of a larger speech and an extensive record of rulings and writings.
"We can all move past YouTube snippets and half-sentences and actually look at the honest-to-God record," Gibbs said. "I think she's talking about the unique experiences that she has."