Obama Supreme Court pick on track for quick vote

WASHINGTON Thu Jul 16, 2009 6:42pm EDT

1 of 15. Supreme Court nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor answers questions during her fourth and final day of testimony at her Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings on Capitol Hill in Washington July 16, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Jason Reed

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's nominee, Sonia Sotomayor, appeared headed for confirmation as the first Hispanic justice on the U.S. Supreme Court after Senate hearings ended on Thursday with Republicans promising a speedy vote.

But Sotomayor's conservative critics used the last day of her hearing to make a final dramatic point on her record on race issues, hearing testimony from two firefighters who said she ruled to deny them promotions because they were not black.

Through four days before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sotomayor has calmly parried Republican attempts to depict her as unfit for a lifetime appointment to the United States' top court and rife with liberal bias.

"I can't think of any greater service that I can give to the country than to be given the privilege of becoming a justice of the Supreme Court," Sotomayor said.

The committee chairman Senator Patrick Leahy said she would likely be approved by the Democratic-controlled Senate in coming weeks and take her seat when the nine-member court meets at a special session in September.

Ranking Republican Senator Jeff Sessions said his party would not seek to block a confirmation vote expected by early August before Congress goes on break. "I look forward to you getting that vote," Sessions said.

Republicans have repeatedly voiced fears the 55-year-old appeals court judge -- raised in the Bronx borough of New York and educated at Princeton and Yale --- is a "judicial activist" eager to imprint the high court with Obama's liberal agenda.

But by Thursday some appeared to be on the fence, with one senior Republican conceding her legal record was mainstream.

"I think and believe you are broad minded enough to understand that America is bigger than the Bronx," said Republican Senator Lindsey Graham -- although he did not say for sure if she had won his vote.

RACE CASES

Critics have focused on Sotomayor's attitudes toward race, with Republicans spotlighting comments in which she said a "wise Latina" might be a better judge than a white man.

She has also come under fire for upholding a lower court ruling that permitted the city of New Haven, Connecticut, to junk firefighter exam results that did not produce enough qualified black candidates.

A mostly white group of firefighters who scored well on the test complained they were discriminated against, and the Supreme Court later overturned Sotomayor's ruling, saying it could open the door to new racial quota systems.

Sotomayor had left the Senate hearing room by the time Republicans called one of their star witnesses against her: Frank Ricci, the chief plaintiff in the New Haven case.

"The rules of the game were set up and we have the right to be judged fairly ... not by the color of your skin," he said in the afternoon session of outwide witnesses

His colleague, Benjamin Vargas, the only Hispanic among the 20 plaintiffs in the case, also testified to the panel.

"I do not want my sons to think their father became a captain because he was Hispanic and used his ethnicity to get ahead," Vargas said. "In our profession, the racial and ethnic make-up of my crew is the least important thing to us and to the public we serve."

Sotomayor has denied mishandling the case and repeatedly said that her only guide as a judge was the U.S. Constitution and established legal precedent.

BATTLES AHEAD

If confirmed, Sotomayor would replace retired Justice David Souter as one of four liberals facing five conservative justices under Chief Justice John Roberts.

Throughout the hearing, Sotomayor followed tradition and deflected questions about divisive issues including abortion, gun rights and gay marriage, saying it was not appropriate to comment as these might come before her on the court.

Republican Senator Charles Grassley said the sparring over Sotomayor's appointment, which divided along partisan lines despite Obama's hopes of building consensus, signaled battles ahead over the judicial branch of the U.S. government.

"Republicans on one side, Democrats on the other, seem to be asking different questions," Grassley told PBS television. "In the last 10 years, there's been a change in the environment here that is influencing that."

Among the witnesses testifying in support of Sotomayor were former Federal Bureau of Investigation director Louis Freeh and David Cone, a former professional baseball pitcher who discussed her role in resolving the 1995 Major League Baseball strike.

Another Sotomayor supporter was New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose own varied public career has seen him on both sides of the political aisle.

"I strongly believe she should be supported by Republicans, Democrats and independents -- and I should know, because I've been all three," he said.

(Additional reporting by Richard Cowan; Editing by David Storey and Philip Barbara)

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