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Senate starts on Sotomayor's historic nomination

WASHINGTON - Sonia Sotomayor enters confirmation hearings for her historic nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court with reason to be confident about the outcome - Democrats have the votes in the Senate to make her the court's first Hispanic and third woman justice.

In the nearly seven weeks since President Barack Obama nominated Sotomayor to replace Justice David Souter, critics have labored without much success to exploit weaknesses in her record.

Republican senators who might oppose her appointment also must take care to avoid offending Hispanic voters, the fastest-growing segment of the electorate, by attacking Sotomayor too harshly.

By most figuring, Sotomayor has no serious roadblock to becoming the first Hispanic and the third woman to serve on the high court. Democrats control the Judiciary panel by a 12-7 margin over Republicans and have the necessary floor votes to elevate the 55-year-old New York native.

Hearings in the Senate Judiciary Committee begin Monday with opening remarks from the panel's 12 Democrats and 7 Republicans, followed by Sotomayor's own statement that is expected to emphasize her compelling rise from poverty in New York City.

Questioning of Sotomayor will begin Tuesday.

On Monday, senators renewed partisan bickering over whether Sotomayor would render impartial justice.

"I think philosophically her statements indicate an approach to judging that is outside the mainstream," Sen. Jeff Sessions, senior Judiciary Committee Republican, said in an interview on CBS's "The Early Show."

Appearing on MSNBC, Democrat Chuck Schumer declared: "She's not far left. She's not far right. She's mainstream."

That disparity is expected to be the center of discussion Monday by members of the panel chaired by Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont.

Leahy planned to kick off the proceedings with laudatory remarks that also sought to firmly establish Sotomayor as a judge who follows wherever the law leads her.

"In truth, we do not have to speculate about what kind of a justice she will be because we have seen the kind of judge she has been. She is a judge in which all Americans can have confidence. She has been a judge for all Americans and will be a justice for all Americans," Leahy said in excerpts of his statement that were provided to The Associated Press.

Republican Sen. John Cornyn highlighted the potential political pitfalls for Republicans when he noted on "Fox News Sunday" that a third of his constituents are Hispanic and that they want Sotomayor judged fairly.

Still, Republicans signaled that they will press the 55-year-old New Yorker and veteran federal judge to explain past rulings involving discrimination complaints and gun rights, as well as remarks that they say raise doubts about Sotomayor's ability to judge cases fairly.

The sharpest comments about her have come from Session.

Sotomayor has said repeatedly in speeches over the past 10 years that personal experiences influence a judge's decisions, Sessions noted Sunday.

"She has criticized the idea that a woman and a man would reach the same result. She expects them to reach different results. I think that's philosophically incompatible with the American system," Sessions said on CBS' "Face the Nation."

Leahy responded Sunday on CBS that Sotomayor's 17-year record on the federal bench shows her to be a "mainstream judge."

Obama called Sotomayor on Sunday to wish her luck at the hearings, compliment her for making courtesy calls to 89 senators and express his confidence that she would win Senate approval, the White House said.

The most fertile ground for Republican questioning appears to be on race and ethnicity.

In a speech in 2001, Sotomayor said she hoped a "wise Latina" often would reach better conclusions than a white male without the same life experience.

The Supreme Court recently reversed a decision by Sotomayor and two other federal appeals court judges in a high-profile victory for white firefighters from New Haven, Connecticut. By a 5-4 vote last month, justices agreed with the firefighters, who claimed they were denied promotion on account of their race after New Haven officials threw out test results because too few minorities did well.

The two issues could allow Republicans to try to create the impression that Sotomayor is a "prisoner of identity politics," said Cambridge University's David Garrow, an avid court watcher.