Twelve years ago, Sonia Sotomayor went before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on her nomination to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan, only to face a surprise grilling.
Republican senators quizzed Sotomayor about judicial activism and her rulings in cases about gays and gangs in prisons. They even asked if she had once disrespected Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
Then the Republicans made her wait a year before allowing the 69-27 vote in 1998 that approved her – for fear, as conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh said then, the “ultraliberal judge” would rocket to the Supreme Court.
Now as President Barack Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court, Sotomayor is no stranger to the Senate confirmation process, with its delays, political maneuvering, and tricky and pointed questioning.
Unlike for some federal judges, the confirmation process hasn’t been easy for Sotomayor and became more difficult as she moved from the district to the circuit court, records and contemporary accounts show.
In both cases, her sponsor, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), complained Sotomayor was being held up because she is a woman and Latina, a charge Republicans denied.
And as she has now, in her appellate court confirmation she gave conservatives grist for their opposition.
As she gears up for her greatest test yet, Sotomayor can expect a confirmation process that is even tougher, more political and more fraught with issues of ethnicity than she has faced before, experts say.
And at her hearing she will face at least three of the Republican senators who opposed her appellate court bid: Jeff Sessions of Alabama, now the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee; Charles Grassley of Iowa, and Jon Kyl of Arizona.
Chief among conservative complaints now is, as Limbaugh recently said, that she is a liberal judicial activist and “reverse racist” for rejecting a reverse discrimination case.
Sotomayor was first nominated as a federal trial judge in 1991 by Republican President George H.W. Bush at the suggestion of Moynihan and with the support of then-Sen. Alfonse D’Amato (R-N.Y.).