President Barack Obama on Tuesday took his first step toward putting his imprint on the US Supreme Court, nominating Judge Sonia Sotomayor to be the first Hispanic justice on the country's most powerful tribunal.
Republicans will have to decide whether to fight her confirmation in the heavily Democratic Senate, where efforts to block her could be risky for a party still reeling from losses in last year's elections. Hispanics are the fastest-growing demographic in the United States, and Republicans may not want to risk losing their votes with a contentious battle over Sotomayor.
Sotomayor would replace retiring liberal Justice David Souter, maintaining the ideological divide in a nine-member court where important cases are frequently split between conservative and liberal justices. Moderate Republican appointee Justice Anthony Kennedy often casts the decisive vote.
The appointment of 54-year-old Sotomayor would bring fresh blood to the court's aging liberal wing, which includes 89-year-old Justice John Paul Stevens. She would join Ruth Bader Ginsburg as the second woman on the court and just the third in its history. Supreme Court justices receive lifetime appointments and can have a profound influence on Americans' daily life. Sotomayor would be a new voice on the cases that often reflect divisions in the broader society, including national security, abortion, gay rights and privacy.
Obama, who made history as America's first black president, beamed on Tuesday as he introduced Sotomayor. He described her as a judge who displays both an impressive mind and heart, and who takes on cases with "an understanding of how the world works and how ordinary people live."
Senate Republicans pledged to give her a fair hearing but cautioned they would question her rigorously and not be rushed. "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 top Senate Republican Mitch McConnell. The president, whose approval ratings trump those of Congress, challenged the Senate to move swiftly and confirm her before Congress' August break so she can be in place when the court begins its new term in October.
Democrats hold 59 votes in the Senate, more than enough to confirm Sotomayor but not quite enough to stop vote-blocking delay tactics if Republicans should attempt one.
In one of her most notable decisions as an appellate judge, she sided last year with the city of New Haven, Connecticut, in a discrimination case brought by white firefighters. The city threw out results of a promotion exam because too few minorities scored high enough. Coincidentally, that case is now before the Supreme Court.
Her ruling had already drawn criticism from conservatives and is likely to play a role in her confirmation hearing. Even her nomination Tuesday, critics described her as a judicial activist who would put feelings above the Constitution.
Sotomayor seemed to take the matter head on. She said the rule of law is the foundation of all basic rights, and the principles set forth by the country's founding fathers endure. "Those principles," she said at the White House, "are as meaningful and relevant in each generation as the generation before." Despite the criticism by conservatives, seven of the Senate's current Republicans voted to confirm her for the appeals court in 1998, and she was first nominated to be a federal judge by Republican President George H.W. Bush.
Sotomayor, who is divorced without children, was born in New York City's gritty South Bronx to parents from the Spanish-speaking U.S. Caribbean territory of Puerto Rico.
She was diagnosed with diabetes as a child and lost her father at a young age. Her mother worked two jobs to provide for her and her brother. She has soared ever since: elite Princeton University and Yale Law School, then positions as a commercial litigator, federal district judge and appellate judge.
"What you've shown in your life is that it doesn't matter where you come from, what you look like or what challenges life throws your way," Obama said Sotomayor stood at his side. "No dream is beyond reach in the United States of America."
Said the nominee: "I am an ordinary person who has been blessed with extraordinary opportunities and experiences." Obama's selection was not just about the next justice but also the new president, who took office in January. His presidency comes as several potential vacancies loom on the top court; besides the aging of the justice's members, Ginsburg recently underwent surgery for pancreatic cancer.
The president had not met Sotomayor until he interviewed her last Thursday at the White House. She was the only one of the four finalists he did not know. The other contenders were federal appellate judge Diane Wood, Solicitor General Elena Kagan and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.
But in addition to her other qualifications, Sotomayor offered a politically attractive background and appealing narrative. Hispanic leaders saw her nomination as significant. "We are reaching a certain level politically and socially, and this is being recognized by the administration," said Gabriela Lemus of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement.
Sotomayor has spoken about her pride in her ethnic background and has said that personal experiences "affect the facts that judges choose to see."
"I simply do not know exactly what the difference will be in my judging," she said in a speech in 2001. "But I accept there will be some based on my gender and my Latina heritage." ___
Associated Press writers Ben Feller, David Espo, Darlene Superville, Ben Evans, Jesse J. Holland and Julie Hirschfeld Davis contributed to this story.