Sotomayor arrives, Supreme Court hearing under way

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WASHINGTON - Sonia Sotomayor took her seat for Supreme Court confirmation hearings on Monday as Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee renewed their weeks-long debate over her qualifications to render justice impartially.

Hearings begin

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"She's not far left. She's not far right. She's mainstream," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., a member of the committee that will cast the first votes on her nomination.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., countered that Sotomayor appears to be "the typical liberal activist judge who will push the law, who believes in identity type politics and seeing people as groups more than individuals."

Sotomayor, an appeals court judge who would be the first Hispanic justice - and only the third woman - made no comment as she arrived for her turn in the witness chair.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the committee, and Sessions, the senior Republican, escorted her to her seat.

A small group of anti-abortion protesters opposed to her confirmation unfurled a banner outside on Capitol Hill that said, "Senators: Stop the Slaughter! Filibuster Sotomayor." It was unclear whether President Barack Obama's choice to sit on the court saw them.

Inside the Senate hearing room, there was no talk of a filibuster, under which Republicans would attempt to block a vote on her nomination. Instead, barring a gaffe of major proportions, Sotomayor seemed on her way to confirmation even before Leahy rapped the opening gavel.

"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," Leahy said in excerpts of his statement that were provided to The Associated Press.

The day's schedule included speeches from all 19 lawmakers on the committee, 12 Democrats and 7 Republicans, followed by Sotomayor's opening statement.

Questioning of Sotomayor will wait for Tuesday.

In the nearly seven weeks since President Barack Obama nominated Sotomayor to replace retiring Justice David Souter, critics have labored without much success to exploit weaknesses in her record. Republican senators also must take care to avoid offending Hispanic voters, the fastest-growing segment of the electorate, by attacking Sotomayor too harshly.

Sessions said Monday morning he feels there remain "fundamental questions" about Sotomayor that he hopes will be answered at the hearings.

He suggested a "disconnect" between her writings from the federal appellate court bench and the speeches and articles she's written. "Her record is better than her speeches," he said. "Her speeches tend to reflect her philosophy. I think we have reason to believe that philosophy will flower."

Sessions said Justice Ruth Ginsburg has been far more activist on the high court bench than could have been predicted from studying her previous legal record.

Said Schumer: "She is sort of moderate. ... She does not let her own personal views interfere."

"The bottom line is, it's not going to be a problem," the New York Democrat said. "When you have someone who has as extensive a record as Judge Sotomayor, that is far and away the best way to tell what kind of Supreme Court justice she'll be."

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, highlighted the potential political pitfalls for Republicans when he noted on "Fox News Sunday" that a third of his constituents are Hispanic and that they want Sotomayor judged fairly.

Still, Republicans signaled that they will press Sotomayor to explain past rulings involving discrimination complaints and gun rights, as well as remarks that they say raise doubts about her ability to judge cases fairly.

President Barack Obama called Sotomayor on Sunday to wish her luck at the hearings, compliment her for making courtesy calls to 89 senators and express his confidence that she would win Senate approval, the White House said.

The most fertile ground for Republican questioning appears to be on race and ethnicity, focused on Sotomayor's "wise Latina" comment and the white firefighters from New Haven, Conn., who won their Supreme Court case last month.

In a speech in 2001, Sotomayor said she hoped a "wise Latina" often would reach better conclusions than a white male without the same life experience.

By a 5-4 vote last month, the high court agreed with the firefighters, who claimed they were denied promotions on account of their race after New Haven officials threw out test results because too few minorities did well. The court reversed a decision by Sotomayor and two other federal appeals court judges.

The two issues could allow Republicans to try to create the impression that Sotomayor is a "prisoner of identity politics," said Cambridge University's David Garrow, an avid court watcher.

Sessions appeared on CBS's "The Early Show," and Schumer was interviewed on MSNBC.