Sotomayor hearings set to start July 13

Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor will start on July 13, a top Democrat announced on Tuesday, and a Republican predicted she would be easily confirmed as the first Hispanic on the highest court in the United States.

Rejecting calls by other Republicans for more time to review her record, Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy made a Senate speech announcing the date for his panel to begin publicly questioning the nominee under oath.

"There is no reason to unduly delay consideration of this well-qualified nominee," Leahy said.

Leahy took the action after conferring with Senate colleagues and President Barack Obama, who last month picked Sotomayor to replace retiring Justice David Souter.

Republicans said they needed additional time to review thousands of cases presided over by Sotomayor, 54, who, with 17 years on the federal bench, is one of the most experienced Supreme Court nominees in history.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell urged Democrats to reconsider. His party had sought September hearings.

"Let me be clear," McConnell said. "Because of what our Democratic colleagues are doing and the way they are doing it, it will now be much more difficult to achieve the kind of comity and cooperation on this and other matters."

Republicans accused Democrats of a rush to judgment but Democrats said they were following precedent. The previous nine Supreme Court nominees averaged 51 days from nomination to the start of their confirmation hearing. Sotomayor’s timetable will be about 48 days.

At the White House, spokesman Robert Gibbs said, "Obviously, the president is pleased."

Republicans could invoke procedural delays but a party aide predicted they would reluctantly go along with July 13.

A Democratic aide said Republicans have few options "other than not showing up" at the hearing, which is expected to last at least a several days.

Mel Martinez, the only Hispanic Republican senator, praised Sotomayor and after meeting her said he expected her to win Senate confirmation "with pretty good numbers."

Democrats control 59 of the 99 Senate votes and need the support of just one Republican to muster the 60 necessary to end any procedural roadblock.

Leahy said he expects to full Senate to vote to confirm Sotomayor before Congress begins its August recess.

Liberal and moderate supporters praise Sotomayor as an independent-minded judge well-suited to replace Souter, who has often sided with liberals on the divided nine-member court.

But Sotomayor has drawn fire for comments in which she has said her life as a Latino woman may help her reach better decisions than a white male without such experiences.

Conservative activists, including former Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh, have accused her of racism — although Gingrich later backed off the claim.

Senate Republicans have rejected such characterizations but maintain she will need to answer plenty of questions at her confirmation hearing. The increasing important of the Hispanic vote may be one factor weighing ahead of the hearings.

Martinez defended her, saying, "I understand what she is trying to say, which is the richness of her experience forms who she is. It forms who I am."

Martinez said, "The question really is will she rule as a Latin woman or will she rule as a judge based on precedent, based on the law and obviously the facts before the court."

Martinez said her rulings are properly founded.