WASHINGTON — Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor has received the stamp of approval from the American Bar Assn. less than a week before her confirmation hearing begins on Capitol Hill.
Sotomayor, a sitting federal appeals judge in New York, was deemed "well qualified" to serve as an associate justice on the high court by an ABA panel -- the highest rating the national attorney organization bestows. The White House was notified by a letter Tuesday to counsel Gregory Craig.
Sotomayor, 55, has been a federal judge since 1992 and has held a seat on the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals for the last 11 years. The panel's decision was unanimous.
Sotomayor goes before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday for what is expected to be several days of questioning. The Obama administration would like a final vote on her confirmation to take place before Congress' August recess.
The ABA traditionally has played a role in the vetting of Supreme Court nominees. Most have received the "well qualified" rating by a unanimous vote, but in 1991, then-nominee Clarence Thomas was given a simple "qualified" tag. Supporters of failed nominee Robert H. Bork were outraged in 1987 when he received several "unqualified" votes from an ABA panel.
"The ABA's rating -- an evaluation of integrity, professional competence and judicial temperament should eliminate the doubts of naysayers who have questioned Judge Sotomayor's disposition on the bench," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the judiciary committee.
Republicans are a distinct minority on the committee -- as well as in the Senate at large with the arrival of Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) -- making Sotomayor's confirmation almost assured barring an unexpected development. Still, they have signaled that they plan to question Sotomayor thoroughly about her background and suitability for the lifetime post.
Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the Judiciary Committee's top Republican, took to the Senate floor early Tuesday to voice his concerns regarding Sotomayor's nomination. Sessions echoed a continuing GOP theme: whether the Latina judge would utilize judicial "empathy" on the bench to favor certain disadvantaged groups over others.
"Whenever a judge puts his or her thumb on the scale to favor one party, the judge necessarily disfavors the other," Sessions said. "And thus far, our review of Judge Sotomayor's record suggests that she may wholeheartedly embrace the president's notion of empathy." Sessions recently also has pledged to press Sotomayor about her role as a board member for a Puerto Rican advocacy group during the 1980s.
The National Rifle Assn. weighed in on the nomination Tuesday as well, sending a letter to Leahy and Sessions stating its concern over Sotomayor's gun-rights jurisprudence. The NRA cited a decision earlier this year by a 2nd Circuit panel that included Sotomayor that found that the individual right of gun ownership under the 2nd Amendment did not extend to the states. The Supreme Court held last year that such a right existed on the federal level. And the high court is likely to rule on the question involving gun laws at the state and local level during its next term.
"Out of respect for the confirmation process, the NRA has not announced an official position on Judge Sotomayor's confirmation," executive director Chris W. Cox wrote. "However, should her answers regarding the 2nd Amendment at the upcoming hearings be hostile or evasive, we will have no choice but to oppose her nomination to the court."
Leahy's office on Tuesday released a study conducted by the Democratic staff on the committee that suggests Sotomayor will be a centrist on crime issues. The survey looked at Sotomayor's criminal decisions on the 2nd Circuit, cases involving violent crime, illegal firearms, drugs, immigration crime and economic crime. The study concluded that Sotomayor affirmed convictions 92% of the time and reversed convictions 2% of the time. (The remaining cases were sent back to the trial court for further proceedings.)
And in the more than 400 criminal cases in which Sotomayor sat on panels with Republican-appointed judges, she agreed with all the Republican-appointed judges in 97% of the cases, the study said.
"Judge Sotomayor's criminal justice record proves that she is a moderate judge, whose decisions in criminal cases rarely differ from those of her colleagues," Leahy said at a news conference Tuesday attended by representatives of major law enforcement organizations that support Sotomayor, including the Fraternal Order of Police and the National Sheriffs' Assn.