WASHINGTON // Her comments, writings and decisions have already been dissected by the pundits and activists, but tomorrow Sonia Sotomayor's bid to sit on the highest court in the United States begins in earnest as she heads to Capitol Hill for a series of hearings before the Senate judiciary committee.
Barring a major setback, Ms Sotomayor will be confirmed, legal experts expect. Democrats have a 60 seats in the Senate and polls show that public opinion is on her side. But Republicans, who will be asking tough questions on such thorny issues as abortion rights, gay marriage and affirmative action, have sharpened their criticism in recent days, offering glimpses of how they plan to frame their opposition to the first Democratic Supreme Court nominee since 1994.
Included on the Republican witness list, released last week, is Frank Ricci, a white fireman who sued the city of New Haven, Connecticut, after it scrapped a promotions test because too few black candidates qualified. As a federal appeals judge, Ms Sotomayor sided with New Haven, but the Supreme Court reversed that decision last month. Some of Ms Sotomayor's detractors, including Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, have said her ruling shows her "favouritism for particular groups".
"It is a troubling philosophy for any judge - let alone one nominated to our highest court," the Kentucky senator said in a statement last week. Since her nomination, Ms Sotomayor has kept a rigorous schedule on the Hill. Despite breaking her ankle, she has shuffled to and from private meetings with legislators, including many with Republicans who will grill her at the hearings. If confirmed, she would be the first Latina to serve on the court and just the third woman - reasons why many analysts expect Republicans to soften their attack. "They don't want to be seen as badgering somebody who is a hero on some level to an incredibly important electoral group," said Thomas Goldstein, a lawyer in Washington and co-founder of Scotusblog, a popular blog on the Supreme Court.
Still, issues of race and affirmative action - including the Ricci case - have increasingly become a rallying cry for the Republican opposition. Critics have taken particular exception to a 2001 lecture in which Ms Sotomayor said: "I would hope 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."
Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the committee, questioned last week whether Ms Sotomayor would let race interfere with her decisions. He called into question Ms Sotomayor's affiliation with the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, a civil rights group that has brought several race discrimination and affirmative action lawsuits against employers. "The question is really - is this a philosophy that she has allowed to influence her decision making process on the bench?" Mr Sessions said. Mr Sessions has not endorsed - nor has he dismissed - a recent push by some Republicans and conservative groups to delay the final confirmation vote until September, which would give them more time to examine Ms Sotomayor's judicial record.
Supporters, meanwhile, have rushed to her defence. More than 1,100 law professors signed a letter last week in favour of Ms Sotomayor's confirmation and a panel of the American Bar Association deemed Ms Sotomayor "well qualified" to sit on the court. The Democrats' list of witnesses includes Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York City, where Ms Sotomayor spent much of her legal career; Robert Morgenthau, the Manhattan district attorney who was Ms Sotomayor's first boss; and David Cone, a former Major League Baseball pitcher who served as the American League representative of the baseball players' union during the 1995 baseball strike. As a district judge, Ms Sotomayor issued an injunction against team owners, effectively ending the longest work stoppage in professional sports and leading some to proclaim that she "saved baseball".
Democrats, who enjoy a 12-7 majority on the committee, head into the hearings buttressed by strong public support for Ms Sotomayor. A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll showed that 62 per cent of respondents want Ms Sotomayor confirmed, including nearly eight in 10 Democrats and about two-thirds of independents. David Stras, a law professor at the University of Minnesota, said that if Ms Sotomayor navigates the questioning without a catastrophic mistake, she will be sitting on the court by October, when the next session begins.
"I think the real question at this point is going to be how many votes in favour of confirmation she gets," he said. email@example.com