WASHINGTON — Her confirmation all but assured, Sonia Sotomayor pledged Monday to serve the "larger interest of impartial justice" rather than any narrower cause if she becomes the first Hispanic on the U.S. Supreme Court.
"My personal and professional experiences help me to listen and understand, with the law always commanding the result in every case," Sotomayor told senators at a televised confirmation hearing.
The remarks about judicial philosophy were her first since President Barack Obama nominated the veteran of 17 years on the federal bench. They appeared aimed at Republicans who have questioned her commitment to impartiality in light of a 2001 remark that experience as a "wise Latina" might give her an advantage over white males.
The 55-year-old appeals court judge spoke after several hours of speech-making in which Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee praised her as a Hispanic pioneer well qualified for the high court and Republicans questioned her impartiality as well as Obama's views in nominating her, his first pick for the high court.
Despite Republican misgivings, Sen. Lindsey Graham told Sotomayor, "Unless you have a complete meltdown, you're going to get confirmed."
"And I don't think you will" have a meltdown, he added quickly as Sotomayor sat listening, her face in a half-smile.
Sotomayor has no serious roadblocks to become the third woman to serve on the high court. Democrats control the Judiciary panel by a 12 to 7 margin over Republicans and have the necessary floor votes to elevate Sotomayor.
In the nearly seven weeks since Obama nominated her to replace Justice David Souter, critics have labored without much success to exploit weaknesses in her record. But Republicans have had to temper their remarks to avoid offending Hispanic voters, the fastest-growing segment of the electorate.
If confirmed, Sotomayor is unlikely to change the court's ideological makeup since she would replace Souter, part of the court's liberal wing. Under former President George W. Bush, the court has tended to be more conservative in its rulings in recent years.
In her remarks, Sotomayor said, "The progression of my life has been uniquely American," that of a child of Puerto Rican parents who moved to New York during World War II. "I want to make one special note of thanks to my mom," she said. "I am here today because of her aspirations and sacrifices for my brother Juan and me."
"Mom, I love that we are sharing this together," said Sotomayor, whose father died when she was 9. She turned as she spoke, whispering a thank-you to her mother, seated one row behind her in the packed hearing room.
Sotomayor, who spoke for only about five minutes, returns on Tuesday to begin hours of questioning from committee members who will cast the first votes on her appointment.
The role of racial politics in the day's proceedings became clear within minutes after Sen. Patrick Leahy, the committee chairman, rapped the opening gavel.
"She's been a judge for all Americans. She'll be a justice for all Americans," said the Democrat.
"Let no one demean this extraordinary woman," Leahy said in a warning to committee Republicans to tread lightly in the days ahead.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, the top Republican, vowed a "respectful tone" and "maybe some disagreements" when lawmakers begin questioning Sotomayor on Tuesday.
Moments later, he took aim at Sotomayor's 2001 statement that her standing as a "wise Latina woman" would sometimes allow her to reach a better decision than a white male.
"I will not vote for, and no senator should vote for an individual nominated by any president who believes it is acceptable for a judge to allow their own personal background, gender, prejudices or sympathies to sway their decision," he said.
"Call it empathy, call it prejudice or call it sympathy, but whatever it is, it's not law," Sessions said. "In truth, it's more akin to politics, and politics has no place in the courtroom."
That was a reference to Obama's declaration — made before he named Sotomayor — that he wanted a person of empathy on the high court.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat, made a spirited rebuttal later. "The empathy that President Obama saw in you has a constitutionally proper place" in the judiciary," he said.