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Originally published May 27, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 27, 2009 at 9:20 AM

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GOP walks a tightrope with Sotomayor nomination

Underneath the bombast that has become a predictable part of Washington's court fights, the nomination Tuesday of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court brought a surprising development: Republican senators who actually will vote on her were not following the activists' script.

Los Angeles Times

A local viewpoint

Andrew Siegel, a constitutional-law scholar at Seattle University, calls Judge Sonia Sotomayor a "mainstream, moderate liberal" very much in the mold of Justice David Souter, whom she has been nominated to replace. Siegel, a clerk at the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals during Sotomayor's tenure there, said the Supreme Court nominee might be slightly more progressive in the area of employer discrimination but, because of her years as a federal prosecutor, could be less "defendant-friendly" in the area of criminal law. Overall, he said, "It's very likely that her rulings won't create significant change on the court."

Lynn Thompson

Seattle Times staff reporter

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WASHINGTON —

Rush Limbaugh called her a "reverse racist." The conservative Judicial Confirmation Network said she carried a "personal political agenda" and should be blocked from the Supreme Court.

But underneath the bombast that has become a predictable part of Washington's court fights, the nomination Tuesday of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court brought a surprising development: Republican senators who actually will vote on her were not following the activists' script.

Instead, GOP senators seemed to be taking their cues from quieter voices within the party who cautioned that opposing the country's first Hispanic Supreme Court nominee would amount to political suicide.

Moreover, some party strategists are telling GOP senators that to attack Sotomayor is to waste an opportunity for Republicans to appear welcoming to Hispanic voters, many of whom have turned away from the GOP because of conservative support for tough immigration restrictions and a hard-line stance against legalizing undocumented workers.

"A lot of Republicans are worried that [fighting the Sotomayor nomination] could be the last straw when it comes to the party's ability to reach the Hispanic community," said Robert de Posada, a Hispanic GOP strategist who said he is advising Republican staff aides on the Senate Judiciary Committee. "Republicans are in a very awkward position."

Lionel Sosa, a Texas-based Republican marketer who designed Hispanic outreach for Presidents Reagan and George W. Bush, said opposing Sotomayor "would be one more nail in the Republicans' image coffin in terms of Latino voters."

"When you're anti the first Latina on the Supreme Court, you're anti-my-family. ... I would take it that these people are anti-Latino," Sosa added. "The worst thing the Republicans can do is oppose her."

The GOP's Sotomayor challenge is the latest example of the party's ongoing internal struggle over reinventing itself at a time that its voter base increasingly is dominated by Southern, conservative white men.

Only five years ago, Bush won re-election by performing unusually well among Hispanics for a Republican — winning more than 40 percent — and some Democrats were fretting over how they would respond if Bush were to nominate his longtime friend, Alberto Gonzales, to be the Supreme Court's first Hispanic justice.

But conservatives blocked Bush's efforts to provide a pathway to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants, and the harsh rhetoric of that debate sent Hispanic voters fleeing the party. Fewer than one in every three Hispanics voted for the GOP's presidential nominee last year, which is one reason that such closely contested states as Florida, Colorado and Nevada fell into the Democratic column.

Democrats seized on the nomination's potential political benefits. The national party distributed an announcement in Spanish. And President Obama, in his formal White House announcement and in a similar e-mail to voters, noted Sotomayor's Puerto Rican roots.

Obama said she had shown "it doesn't matter where you come from, what you look like or what challenges life throws your way — no dream is beyond reach in the United States of America."

The dispute within the Republican Party over how to approach the nomination broke out almost instantly, and not everybody was willing to concede the pick was a guaranteed positive development for the White House.

Conservative advocacy groups argued the nomination could open an emotional battle over questions of race and affirmative action, citing Sotomayor's recent appellate-court ruling against a white firefighter claiming racial discrimination in hiring and promotions.

Conservative activists also see a Supreme Court fight as a rare rallying point in their quest to force the GOP to the right on social issues such as abortion and gay marriage. And nomination battles give those groups an opportunity to rev up their fundraising engines.

Limbaugh, the conservative radio commentator, sought to fan those flames Tuesday, citing a 2002 quote by Sotomayor in which she said her experiences as a Hispanic woman might guide her to more thoughtful decisions than a white man who had not lived the same life.

"If that's not a racist statement," Limbaugh said, "I don't know what is. Reverse racist or whatever."

But the words coming from GOP senators struck a sharp contrast.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, a Judiciary Committee member who also heads the GOP's Senate campaign committee, said Sotomayor offers a "compelling American success story and something that we can all admire and respect about our country."

Cornyn and other Republican senators stepped carefully as they promised an aggressive — but respectful — confirmation process.

"While I celebrate Sonia Sotomayor's life story," said Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., "I am troubled by some of her statements. She deserves a fair and respectful hearing."

Some GOP strategists and officials said they believed a full-blown confirmation battle could bolster Democratic efforts to paint Republicans as obstructionist — the "Party of No."

But by voting for the first Hispanic justice, some Republicans said, the party could create opportunity from the Sotomayor nomination. If the administration does not act this year on a legalization program for illegal immigrants, Republicans could make the case to Hispanics that Democrats failed to deliver on their priorities.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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