WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama named federal appeals judge Sonia Sotomayor as the nation's first Hispanic Supreme Court justice on Tuesday, praising her as "an inspiring woman" with both the intellect and compassion to interpret the Constitution wisely.
Obama said Sotomayor has more experience as a judge than any current member of the high court had when nominated, adding she has earned the "respect of colleagues on the bench," the admiration of lawyers who appear in her court and "the adoration of her clerks."
"My heart today is bursting with gratitude," Sotomayor said from the White House podium moments after being introduced by Obama.
If confirmed by the Senate, she would join Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as the second woman on the current court, the third in history. She would succeed retiring Justice David Souter.
She would be unlikely to alter the ideological balance of the court, since Souter generally sides with the liberals on key 5-4 rulings. But at 54, she is a generation younger that Souter, and liberal outside groups hope she will provide a counterpoint to some of the sharply worded conservative rulings.
Obama and Sotomayor both noted the historic nature of the appointment. The president said a Hispanic on the court would mark another step toward the goal of "equal justice under law."
Obama and Sotomayor stood with Vice President Joe Biden. It was a striking picture of diversity: a black president, a white vice president and a Hispanic nominee to the nation's highest court.
Sotomayor said she grew up in poor surroundings and never dreamed she would one day be nominated for the highest court.
Obama has said he hopes she can take her place before the justices begin their new term in October.
Democrats hold a large majority in the Senate, and barring the unexpected, Sotomayor's confirmation should be assured.
The Senate Republican leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, issued a statement that said: "Senate Republicans will treat Judge Sotomayor fairly. But we will thoroughly examine her record to ensure she understands that the role of a jurist in our democracy is to apply the law evenhandedly, despite their own feelings or personal or political preferences."
In his remarks, Obama made no mention of his earlier statement that he wanted a justice with empathy, although his remark that compassion was needed came close.
Sotomayor's nomination opens a new phase in the drive to replace Souter, as liberal and conservative groups alike scour the record she has compiled in 17 years on the federal bench.
In one of Sotomayor's most notable decisions, as an appellate judge she sided last year with the city of New Haven, Conn., in a discrimination case brought by white firefighters. The city threw out results of a promotion exam because too few minorities scored high enough. Coincidentally, that case is now before the Supreme Court.
That ruling has already drawn criticism from conservatives, and is likely to play a role in her confirmation hearing.
In one of her most memorable rulings as federal district judge, in 1995, Sotomayor ruled with Major League Baseball players over owners in a labor strike that had led to the cancellation of the World Series.
Obama referred to that in his remarks, then joked he hoped her support for the Yankees would not unduly influence New Englanders to oppose her in the Senate.
Among them is Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who said, "The American people will want the Senate to carry out its constitutional duty with conscientiousness and civility."
Sotomayor grew up in New York after her parents moved from Puerto Rico. She has dealt with diabetes since age 8 and lost her father at age 9, growing up under the care of her mother in humble surroundings. As a girl, inspired by the Perry Mason television show, she knew she wanted to be a judge.
A graduate of Princeton University and Yale Law School, a former prosecutor and private attorney, Sotomayor became a federal judge for the Southern District of New York in 1992. She became an appeals judge in 1998 for the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers New York, Vermont and Connecticut.
She was first appointed by a Republican, President George H.W. Bush, and won Senate confirmation without dissent. She was named an appeals judge by President Bill Clinton in 1997.
At her Senate confirmation hearing more than a decade ago, she said, "I don't believe we should bend the Constitution under any circumstance. It says what it says. We should do honor to it."
Obama's nomination is the first by a Democratic president in 15 years.
His announcement leaves the Senate four months — more than enough by traditional standards — to complete confirmation proceedings before the court begins its next term in the fall.
Republicans have issued conflicting signals about their intentions. While some have threatened filibusters if they deemed Obama's pick too liberal, others have said that is unlikely.
Given Sotomayor's selection, any decision to filibuster would presumably carry political risks — Hispanics are the fastest-growing segment of the population and an increasingly important one politically.
One conservative group did not wait for the formal announcement. Wendy Long of the Judicial Confirmation Network, issued a statement calling Sotomayor a "liberal judicial activist of the first order who thinks her own personal political agenda is more important that the law as written."
Abortion rights have been a flashpoint in several recent Supreme Court confirmations, although Sotomayor has not written any controversial rulings on the subject.
As a federal appeals court judge in 2002, she ruled against an abortion rights group that had challenged a government policy prohibiting foreign organizations receiving U.S. funds from performing or supporting abortions.
In her opinion, Sotomayor wrote that the government was free to favor the anti-abortion position over a pro-choice position when public funds were involved.
Sotomayor's elevation to the appeals court was delayed by Republicans, in part out of concerns she might someday be selected for the Supreme Court. She was ultimately confirmed for the appeals court in 1998 on a 68-28 vote, gathering some Republican support.
Among those voting against her was Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, now the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee that will hold sway over her confirmation.
"I'd say the stakes are higher for the Supreme Court," he said recently. "The Supreme Court sometimes seems to be acting as a continuing constitutional convention, so I am concerned about that." He said Sotomayor would be entitled to a fair hearing if nominated.
Sotomayor possesses credentials Sessions said he wanted in a pick for the high court — years of experience on the bench. Obama had talked openly about the upside of choosing someone outside the judiciary — every current justice is a former federal appeals court judge — but passed over at least two serious candidates who had never been judges.
Sotomayor has spoken openly about her pride in her ethnic background and has said that personal experiences "affect the facts that judges choose to see."
"I simply do not know exactly what the difference will be in my judging," she said in a speech in 2002. "But I accept there will be some based on my gender and my Latina heritage."
From the moment Souter announced his resignation, it was widely assumed Obama would select a woman to replace him, and perhaps a Hispanic as well.
Others known to have been considered included federal appeals judge Diane Wood, who was a colleague of the president's at the University of Chicago Law School, as well as two members of his administration, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Solicitor General-nominee Elena Kagan.
Obama came to office at a time when several potential vacancies loomed on the high court. Justice John Paul Stevens at is 89, and Ginsburg recently underwent surgery for pancreatic cancer.