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* Court's ideological makeup expected to remain same
* Sotomayor noted for ruling in baseball strike
* Fight likely as Republicans oppose Obama pick
* Obama wants job filled by October (Adds record on business rulings)
By David Alexander
WASHINGTON, May 26 (Reuters) - President Barack Obama nominated Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday, selecting a woman who would be the court's first Hispanic justice and a liberal who is unlikely to change its ideological balance.
Sotomayor, 54, is a U.S. appeals court judge who grew up in a public housing project in New York City and is the daughter of Puerto Rican parents. She would replace retiring Justice David Souter, who was part of the court's liberal wing.
The nine justices, whose docket includes controversial cases on abortion and the death penalty, have been closely divided on many contentious issues, often splitting between a five-member conservative majority and four dissenting liberal justices.
Conservatives quickly moved to criticize Obama's choice, but political analysts said that -- barring unexpected scandal -- it was unlikely the nomination would be derailed. Supreme Court justices serve for life but their nomination must be approved by the U.S. Senate, where Obama's fellow Democrats have a solid majority.
Obama, who had spoken of "empathy" as a criteria for the job, called Sotomayor an inspiring woman as he announced his pick at the White House. He recounted Sotomayor's humble beginnings, saying she had "lived out the American dream."
Sotomayor is most widely known for her decision as a trial judge in 1995 to bar Major League Baseball owners from using replacement players, ending a strike in one of America's favorite sports.
"Some say that Judge Sotomayor saved baseball," Obama said.
While liberal groups welcomed the nomination, conservatives and business groups reacted cautiously. The Chamber of Commerce said it was important to focus on how her views would affect economic growth and businesses, and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell promised to examine her record thoroughly.
Patrick Leahy, the Democratic chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he was committed to ensuring Sotomayor was seated before the Court's term begins in October.
As a judge on the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York, Sotomayor has often sided with plaintiffs in cases involving race, sex, age and disability discrimination and has ruled against businesses in cases on environmental law and securities litigation. Four of her business rulings were later reversed by the Supreme Court.
"I strive never to forget the real world consequences of my decisions on individuals, business and government," Sotomayor told the White House gathering.
Sotomayor has a long record of rulings in business cases, but experts say her record does not appear to be either particularly liberal or conservative -- but rather a patchwork of decisions based more on the merits and facts of the cases than an ideological approach to the law.
Sotomayor would be the third woman to serve on the court and would join the only other woman currently on the panel, Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Hoping to show a consultative approach, Obama spoke with every member of the Senate Judiciary committee -- both Democrats and Republicans -- before he made a decision.
Sotomayor was part of a short list of candidates that also included U.S. appeals court judge Diane Wood, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Solicitor General Elena Kagan, U.S. officials said.
Obama interviewed each of the four for an hour at the White House last week. Sotomayor spent a total of seven hours last Thursday at the White House, including the one-hour interview with Obama, which was the first time the two had met.
Obama urged lawmakers to swiftly confirm Sotomayor's nomination. But analysts noted that Obama, a former senator, voted against Republican President George W. Bush's two Supreme Court nominees, John Roberts and Samuel Alito, and said his choice was certain to provoke a fight.
"He selected somebody who virtually guarantees a confirmation fight. This would be the person the Republicans likely would have selected for the political potential," said George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley.
He cited her controversial 2005 remark that the appellate court was a place where "policy is made," and her appeals court's ruling in a case involving firefighters in New Haven, Connecticut -- which hinged on arguments over affirmative action policies designed to favor minorities and address past discrimination.
While some Republicans indicated they planned a fight over the nomination, there was little chance they could upset it.
Democrats control 59 seats in the 100-member Senate, and Republicans are unlikely to be able to get near-unanimous party support to muster 40 votes needed to block Sotomayor's nomination with procedural tactics.
Sotomayor has been a Court of Appeals judge in New York since 1998. Before that she served as a U.S. District Court judge for the Southern District of New York.
Her mother, a nurse, had to support her and her brother after Sotomayor's father died when she was 9. Sotomayor, who is divorced, graduated from Princeton University and Yale Law School and began her law career in 1979 as an assistant district attorney in Manhattan.
Additional reporting by James Vicini, Ross Colvin, Andy Sullivan, and Caren Bohan; Editing by Frances Kerry and Cynthia Osterman