WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor fended off Republican attacks on Tuesday, saying "diversity on the bench is good for America" and promising rulings based on law, not racial bias.
Grilled by Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sotomayor -- who would become the first Hispanic on the U.S. top court -- coolly explained the context for one of her most controversial comments: that a "wise Latina" might reach a better legal decision than a white man.
"The process of judging is a process of keeping an open mind," the appeals court judge said at her confirmation hearing, adding that all jurists must guard against internal prejudice.
"I believe my record of 17 years demonstrates fully that I do believe that judges must apply the law and not make the law," said Sotomayor, 55, who is widely expected to be confirmed.
Democrats call Obama's decision to nominate Sotomayor historic and have emphasized her long career as a prosecutor and judge. But Republicans have focused on charges that her decisions could show racial bias and "judicial activism" aimed at driving social change from the bench.
Republicans have drawn ammunition from a 2001 speech which included the "wise Latina" comment as well as an appeals court decision she made upholding a city's right to junk firefighter test results which did not produce enough minority candidates.
Offered a chance to explain the "wise Latina" comment on Tuesday, Sotomayor said it was an unfortunate rhetorical flourish and was meant to inspire young Hispanics and women to get involved with the law.
"I do not believe that any ethnic, racial or gender group has an advantage in sound judgment," she said, adding that she believed every person had an equal opportunity to be a good judge regardless of background.
DIVERSITY GOOD FOR COURT
"I don't think that anybody quarrels with the fact that diversity on the bench is good for America," said Sotomayor, who would be only the third woman and third non-white justice to serve in more than 200 years of Supreme Court history.
"It is good for America because we are the land of opportunity. And to the extent that we are pursuing that and showing that all groups can be lawyers and judges, that's just reflecting the values of our society."
Most observers say the strong Democratic majority in the Senate makes Sotomayor's lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court all but assured.
That will give Obama, a former constitutional law professor, his first chance to reflect his liberal outlook in the judicial branch, although the conservative-liberal balance of the nine-member court would not change with Sotomayor's presence.
Questioning was expected to continue for several more days. A vote on confirmation could come by the end of the month.
Political analysts say Republicans have been formulating their attack carefully. Hispanics make up the fastest-growing U.S. minority and are increasingly courted by both Democratic and Republican politicians.
Sotomayor nevertheless faced tough Republican questioning, particularly on the firefighters case where her appeals court decision was overturned by the Supreme Court.
"We were following precedent," she said of her ruling that had allowed New Haven, Connecticut to throw out a promotion exam because it yielded too few qualified black candidates.
Obama said on the campaign trail before he took office as president in January that he hoped for Supreme Court judges with "empathy" -- which critics said was code for allowing political whims to overrule legal precedent.
But Sotomayor stressed that while only Congress can make laws, both life experience and legal statute went into making a good judge, adding "my record speaks more loudly than I can."
Democrats, seeking to bolster her nomination, applauded what has become known as the "empathy standard."
"I believe that empathy is the opposite of indifference, the opposite of having icewater in your veins," said Democratic Senator Charles Schumer.
The Supreme Court is closely divided with four liberal and five conservative members. That balance would be maintained if Sotomayor is confirmed as she would replace retiring Justice David Souter, also a liberal.
"I suspect she will be confirmed and I'm convinced it won't be a party line vote," Senator Patrick Leahy, the committee chairman, said after the proceedings on Tuesday morning.
Sotomayor faced questions on other divisive issues:
-- On gun rights, she said she accepted a Supreme Court ruling last year guaranteeing an individual's right to own guns and said she would keep "an open mind" on the issue.
-- On antitrust cases, she said she could be seen neither as pro-business nor anti-business.
-- On abortion, she said she accepted as "settled" current U.S. law allowing the procedure.
-- On affirmative action, she said she recognized the continued need in some cases for racial preference policies to redress past racial injustices.