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Likely to succeed

The right and left may be nervous about Sotomayor, but confirmation is not in doubt

Likely to succeed

(Associated Press/Photo by Susan Walsh)

President Barack Obama's first Supreme Court nomination, Judge Sonia Sotomayor, has surprisingly managed to make both liberals and conservatives uneasy and yet become a shoo-in to be confirmed.

Citing her 2005 comment that federal appeals courts are where "policy is made," conservatives warned that Sotomayor, vying to become the nation's first Hispanic and third female on the Supreme Court, would legislate from the bench.

But upcoming confirmation hearings have an added degree of intrigue because liberal pro-abortion groups are nervous over a lack of rulings that show where the 54-year-old U.S. Appeals Court judge stands on abortion.

During the White House event announcing her nomination, Obama touted her life story: Daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants, her father died when she was a young girl and her mother worked as a nurse to support the family. Sotomayor went from a Bronx, N.Y., housing project to summa cum laude graduate at Princeton University and later editor of the Yale Law Journal. "I'm an ordinary person who has been blessed with extraordinary opportunities and experiences," Sotomayor said.

But those experiences do not include many rulings on hot-button issues such as abortion and gay marriage despite 17 years and roughly 400 decisions on the federal bench.

In her one abortion-related case in 2002, Sotomayor took the side of pro-life groups. She disagreed with arguments that President George W. Bush's policy of barring federal money to overseas organizations that support or perform abortions violated the Constitution.

Not able to find even writings or speeches where Sotomayor, a Catholic, has discussed her abortion stance, pro-abortion groups have been tepid in their support and have encouraged senators to engage Sotomayor on abortion during upcoming hearings.

Senators may press, but don't expect Sotomayor to be forthcoming under questioning. Her likely stand on abortion will not be known until the first time she makes an abortion ruling as a justice. And, two weeks after her nomination, it appears likely she will get that chance to make high court rulings. A visitor to the Capitol would be hard pressed to find one voting member of the Senate who is doubtful of her eventual confirmation.

"Sadly, even being a wild-eyed judicial activist is probably not enough, by itself, to stop a Supreme Court nominee given the large Democratic majority in the Senate," said Curt Levey, executive director of the Committee for Justice.

But that doesn't mean conservative groups want Republican senators to simply wave a white flag. A group of 145 conservative leaders sent a letter to Senate Republicans in early June demanding a confirmation fight. "We are calling for a great debate," Manuel Miranda, the chairman of the conservative Third Branch Conference, told me. "We need to use this as a teachable moment to tell the American people the difference between Democrats and Republicans."

Arguments have centered on Sotomayor's rejection of a New Haven, Conn., firefighters' lawsuit charging reverse discrimination. The firefighters sued when officials threw out the results of written promotion tests because no African-Americans qualified. The case, Ricci v. DeStefano, is now before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Furthermore, in a 2002 speech, Sotomayor now famously said that "a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experience would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life." Both former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and radio host Rush Limbaugh have used this quote to label Sotomayor a racist, a description that Republican leaders in the Senate have disavowed.

"We must determine if Ms. Sotomayor understands that the proper role of a judge is to act as a neutral umpire of the law," said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., who will lead the GOP during upcoming confirmation hearings. Ironically, Sessions saw his own nomination to the federal bench go down amid allegations of racial insensitivity more than 20 years ago.

Right now the biggest fight is on the hearing timeline: Republicans say September. Democrats say July. Final verdict: A left-leaning Sotomayor replacing the left-leaning retiring David Souter likely won't alter the balance of the court.

Edward Lee Pitts

Edward Lee Pitts

Lee is the associate dean of World Journalism Institute and former Washington, D.C. bureau chief for WORLD Magazine. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and teaches journalism at Dordt University in Sioux Center, Iowa. Lee resides with his family in Iowa.