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Sotomayor opponents in weak field position so far

Obama's high-court pick is no 'stealth candidate.' She has made some 450 judicial decisions. What's more, she has not been shy about expressing her opinions publicly.

By Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor, Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor / May 27, 2009

President Barack Obama announces federal appeals court judge Sonia Sotomayor, right, as his nominee for the Supreme Court, Tuesday, May 26, 2009, in an East Room ceremony at the White House in Washington.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

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The nomination of federal appeals-court judge Sonia Sotomayor to a seat on the US Supreme Court sets the stage for a national debate over the appropriate role of a high-court justice and whether Judge Sotomayor is the best person for the job.

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But the debate may ultimately be far less aggressive than many conservative stalwarts would like. Short of a revelation of personal scandal, Sotomayor is almost certain to be confirmed with a solid Democratic majority in the Senate. And an aggressive campaign against her by Republicans could harm the party, already reeling from a poor performance last November and a decline in support among Hispanics.

Senate Republicans responded cautiously on Tuesday to the Sotomayor announcement, calling for "fair" hearings rather than launching aggressive attacks.

"We will thoroughly examine her record to ensure she understands that the role of a jurist in our democracy is to apply the law evenhandedly, despite their own feelings or personal or political preferences," said Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

"The American people deserve a full and thoughtful debate about the proper role of a judge in the American legal system," added Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the senior Republican on the Judiciary Committee.

Republicans urged the Obama administration and Senate Democrats not to rush the nomination into hearings. They said they want time to undertake a complete investigation.

With more than 16 years on the federal bench as both a trial judge and appeals-court judge and some 450 judicial decisions, Sotomayor has no shortage of material for both sides to investigate for evidence of bias or brilliance.

The Sotomayor nomination represents the antithesis of the Republican Supreme Court strategy of nominating a "stealth candidate." Not only is Sotomayor's judicial record long and open, but she has not been shy about expressing her views in public forums where her remarks might be quoted, recorded, or videotaped.

These, too, are expected to provide opportunities in the Senate hearings to probe bias or brilliance.

One often-cited episode occurred during a 2005 panel discussion at Duke University Law School in Durham, N.C. "All of the legal defense funds out there, they're looking for people with court-of-appeals experience, because it is – court of appeals is where policy is made," Sotomayor said.

"I know this is on tape, and I should never say that, because we don't make law, I know. [The audience laughs.] OK, I know, I know. I'm not promoting it, I'm not advocating it, I'm, you know. Um. OK."

Critics say the comment suggests that Sotomayor may feel an entitlement to use her lifetime appointment and judicial power to work as a legal activist to shape the law and determine winners and losers in ways dictated by personal or political ideology.

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