Sotomayor Promises "Fidelity to the Law"

Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor CBS

Updated 3:00 p.m. ET

Responding to Republican attacks that she may bring unfair bias to the bench, Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor said Monday that in her 17 years as a judge, her decisions "have been made not to serve the interests of any one litigant, but always to serve the larger interest of impartial justice."

Still, Sotomayor highlighted her life story and consideration for others in her opening statement during her Senate confirmation hearing.

"I have witnessed the human consequences of my decisions," she said.

Her judicial philosophy is simply "fidelity to the law," Sotomayor said, though she said the process of judging is enhanced by understanding all parties' concerns. She said her experiences -- both personal and professional -- have given her different perspectives.

"The progression of my life has been uniquely American," Sotomayor said, relating how her parents left Puerto Rico during World War II. Her father, a factory worker with a third grade education, passed away when she was nine years old. Sotomayor thanked her mother for her sacrifices.

"She taught us that the key to success in America is a good education," she said. "And she set the example, studying alongside my brother and me at our kitchen table so that she could become a registered nurse. We worked hard."

Sotomayor related how she became a champion for public safety in her first job out of law school, as an assistant District Attorney in New York.

"There, I saw children exploited and abused," she said. "I felt the suffering of victims' families torn apart by a loved one's needless death."

However, emphasizing her impartiality, Sotomayor noted that when former President George H.W. Bush nominated her to the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, "My career as an advocate ended-and my career as a judge began."

(Read the full text of Sotomayor's prepared statement here.)

Though Sotomayor faced strong scrutiny from Republicans at the opening of her confirmation hearings, both Republicans and Democrats praised her accomplishments -- with one Republican saying her confirmation is all but inevitable.

"Unless you have a complete meltdown, you're going to get confirmed," said Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham.

His Republican colleagues would have no problem voting for a Hispanic nominee, Graham said, but "they just feel unnerved by some of your speeches... and some of your cases."

Referring to Sotomayor's well-publicized comments that a "wise Latina" may reach better judicial decisions in some cases than a white male, Graham said his career would be over if he made similar statements. Still, he said, that does not make her a racist.

"I think your experience can add a lot to the court, but I don't think it makes you better than anyone else," he said. "What we're talking about here today is what will you do when it comes to making policy."

Graham called Sotomayor "someone of good character" and "passionate." He added that while he disagrees with Sotomayor's philosophies on many issues, he wants to respect President Obama's nomination.

"I don't know how I'm going to vote, but my inclination is elections matter," he said.

Other Republican senators also questioned whether she would bring unfair bias to the court.

The Constitution requires judges to make decisions free from personal politics, feelings and preferences, said Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley. He said President Obama's call for a justice with "empathy" appears to encourage judges to do just the opposite.

"President Obama seems to believe you stand up to his empathy standard," Grassley said. "That worries me."

Republicans attacked President Obama and his comments about empathy a number of times -- possibly making Sotomayor's hearing a prop in a larger fight, according to CBS News legal analyst Andrew Cohen.

Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse gave a strong rebuttal to those concerns, saying judges must show empathy for marginalized members of society, for whom the courtroom should act as a sanctuary from unjust laws.

"The empathy President Obama saw in you has a constitutionally fitting place" on the court, Whitehouse said. "A courtroom is supposed to be a place where the status quo can be disrupted, even upended, where the Constitution or laws may require."

"I believe your broad and balanced background and empathy prepare you well," he added.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, sharply criticized Sotomayor's rulings as a federal judge, suggesting her confirmation is not a given.

"Our legal system is at a dangerous crossroads," he said. "I will not vote for an individual who is not fully committed to fairness and impartiality... who believes it is acceptable for their personal background to sway their opinion..."

Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein praised Sotomayor's "brilliant legal and judicial career," pointing out she has more federal judicial experience than any justice in the past 100 years.

Sotomayor has "broad and relevent experience... a strong and deep knowledge of the law... (and) a firm commitment to follow the law," Feinstein said, adding that she views Sotomayor's nomination "with a great sense of personal pride."

Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch explained the reasoning of his party's strong scrutiny of Sotomayor by citing President Obama's opposition to judicial nominees nominated by Republicans -- such as Janice Rogers Brown, a federal judge whose nomination was held up by Democrats.

"Sen. Obama made... arguments I find relevant today," Hatch said. "We should applaud Judge Sotomayor's achievements... yet Sen. Obama called it offensive and cynical to suggest a nominee's race or gender can give her a pass."

He said he shares Mr. Obama's hope that the nation has moved pass that kind of thinking.

Sotomayor has decided advantages as she begins the most important trial of her long legal career, a nationally televised consideration of her nomination to be the first Hispanic and just the third woman on the Supreme Court.

Beginning today, she tells her compelling up-from-poverty personal story to a jury tilted strongly in her favor - Democrats hold a comfortable majority on the Senate Judiciary Committee and a filibuster-resistant 60 votes in the Senate.

A recent CBS News poll shows most Americans do not have an opinion about about Sotomayor but those who do see her in a favorable light.

Still, Supreme Court nominations inevitably draw attention to hot-button issues such as abortion. A protester screaming, "What about the unborn" was escorted by police out of today's hearing.

Republicans have signaled that they will press the 55-year-old New Yorker and veteran federal judge to explain past rulings involving discrimination complaints and gun rights, as well as comments that they say raise doubts about Sotomayor's ability to judge cases fairly.

Sotomayor has extensively prepared with White House counsel for the types questions she may face.

President Barack Obama chose Sotomayor in late May to take the place of Justice David Souter, who retired last month. The switch would not appreciably alter the balance of the power on the conservative-leaning court.

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.

Hearings will continue tomorrow, beginning at 9:30 a.m. ET. Watch it here at CBSNews.com.
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