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Sotomayor gets boost in bid for Senate approval

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor got a boost on Tuesday in what is expected to be a relatively easy road to Senate confirmation when an influential U.S. lawyer’s group gave her its top rating.

U.S. Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor meets with Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) on Capitol Hill in Washington June 10, 2009. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

The American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary based its unanimous “well qualified” evaluation on a review of the integrity, competence and judicial temperament of Sotomayor, a federal judge for 17 years who seems headed to become the first Hispanic on the highest U.S. court.

“When the Judiciary Committee hearings to consider this nomination begin next week, Americans will hear from Judge Sotomayor herself, and I have the utmost confidence they will agree with the American Bar Association’s review,” said Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy, a Democrat.

Sotomayor is expected to win confirmation by the full Democratic-led Senate, perhaps overwhelmingly, to replace David Souter, who recently retired. Her hearings begin on Monday.

Sotomayor, 54, would likely not change the balance on the often divided nine-member court. Like Souter, she is seen as a liberal though Democrats insist she is mainstream.

IMPORTANT RACE CASE

Polls that show most Americans back the nominee, but Senate Republicans are gearing up to at least raise pointed questions at her hearing. She is certain to be quizzed about the U.S. Supreme Court decision last week which overruled her on a major race discrimination case.

The high court’s 5-4 ruling held that the city of New Haven, Connecticut, violated civil rights law when it threw out the results of a promotion exam that produced a number of qualified white applicants but no acceptable black candidates.

The justices, divided along liberal and conservative lines, overturned an earlier ruling by a three-judge U.S. appeals court panel that included Sotomayor.

“In this case, the Supreme Court was correct in my view,” Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said in a Senate speech

on Tuesday. “The government should not be allowed to discriminate intentionally on the basis of race.”

“Every court involved in this case realized that it involved complex questions that warranted thorough treatment -- every court, that is, except for Judge Sotomayor’s panel,” McConnell said.

Civil rights groups and legal experts said the ruling could affect promotion policies for employers nationwide, many of which operate under “affirmative action” programs designed decades ago to foster diversity and redress past bias.

Sotomayor’s backers said she and her fellow appeals court judges followed the law. Appeals court judges must adhere to legal precedent while Supreme Court justices can change it.

Sotomayor received praise from Democratic as well as a number of Republican senators after a recent round of private, one-on-one meetings with them on Capitol Hill.

But she has drawn fire for earlier comments in which she said her life as a Latino woman may help her reach better legal decisions that a white man without such experiences.

The ABA, with more than 400,000 members, describes itself as the world’s largest voluntary professional membership organization. Founded in 1878, it has been providing evaluations of judicial nominees since 1953, a spokeswoman said.

Clarence Thomas is the only current member of the Supreme Court not to receive a “well qualified” from the ABA. He was rated a notch below at “qualified,” the spokeswoman said.

Editing by Cynthia Osterman

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