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Pointed questions and high marks for Sotomayor

Supreme Court hearings start on Monday

Senator Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, praised Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor. Senator Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, praised Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press)
By Julie Hirschfeld Davis
Associated Press / July 8, 2009
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WASHINGTON - Conservatives stepped up their criticism of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor yesterday, but Senate Republicans would not say whether they would accede to activists’ demands to try to delay a final vote to confirm President Obama’s first high court choice until September.

At the same time, the National Rifle Association raised what it called “very serious concerns’’ about Sotomayor based on her stance on weapons rights, yet it stopped short of opposing her, citing its “respect for the confirmation process.’’

But the American Bar Association rated her “well-qualified’’ to be a justice after its members conducted scores of confidential interviews with her colleagues and pored through her record and writings to assess her integrity, qualifications, and temperament.

The last time the ABA reviewed Sotomayor’s qualifications - when she was up for the Second US Circuit Court of Appeals - a majority rated her “well qualified.’’

The nation’s largest lawyers’ group has no official role in the process, but its ratings are closely watched.

“The ABA’s rating - an evaluation of integrity, professional competence, and judicial temperament - should eliminate the doubts of naysayers who have questioned Judge Sotomayor’s disposition on the bench,’’ said Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat who heads the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The panel is to open hearings Monday on Sotomayor’s nomination to replace Justice David Souter on the Supreme Court. If confirmed, she would be the first Hispanic to serve there.

The White House gave senators a lengthy briefing book on Sotomayor that highlights key rulings in areas including criminal law, freedom of speech and religion, women’s issues, gun and property rights, and immigration. The 129-page document describes the judge in glowing terms, repeating often that she shows judicial restraint and is a moderate. It says she has a “record of judicial excellence and, for each case that comes before her, has narrowly applied the law to the facts of the case.’’

Leahy warned the GOP against holding up the final vote on Sotomayor’s confirmation. Republicans “can use their rights in the Senate, but I have a feeling the American public would say: ‘What are you afraid of? Why don’t you vote?’ ’’

Leahy spoke at a gathering of law enforcement leaders who announced their endorsement of Sotomayor’s nomination. Her allies also pointed to support she’s received from the American Hunters and Shooters Association, another gun rights group, which last month wrote Leahy calling her “a model of judicial restraint.’’

Still, the NRA - influential with Republicans and some conservative Democrats - said senators should question Sotomayor on her views on the Second Amendment and curbs on the right to bear arms, and threatened to oppose her if her answers were “hostile or evasive.’’

In a letter to senators, Chris W. Cox, the group’s executive director, said Sotomayor had been “dismissive’’ of the Second Amendment, particularly in an appeals court ruling that held it only limits the federal government - not states.

Meanwhile, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the GOP leader, said Sotomayor’s federal appeals court ruling last year against white firefighters in New Haven, Conn., alleging reverse discrimination leaves the impression that she allows her agenda to affect her judgment and she favors certain groups. The Supreme Court reversed the appeals court last week.

McConnell said Sotomayor may have let her service with a civil rights group that represented Hispanics in job discrimination cases sway her decision. She held leadership roles on the board of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, now known as LatinoJustice PRLDEF, from 1980 to 1992.