WASHINGTON (CNN) – Judge Sonia Sotomayor addressed the controversial issue of raceand gender in her judicial philosophy Tuesday by promising to apply the law "ultimately and completely" regardless of circumstance, according to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy.
Sotomayor commented on the issue, Leahy said, in a private meeting with him while making the rounds with several key senators on Capitol Hill.
Some of Sotomayor's critics have raised the matter by highlighting a 2001 speech she gave in which she said that a "wise Latina woman, with the richness of her experiences, would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life."
Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, said Sotomayor told him that "of course one's life experience shapes who you are, but ultimately and completely ... as a judge you follow the law. There's not one law for one race or another. There's not one law for one color or another. There's not one law for rich, a different one for poor. There's only one law."
Leahy praised Sotomayor's experience, asserted that she has a "great legal mind" similar to that of retiring Justice David Souter, and ripped Sotomayor's critics for launching "the most vicious (attacks) I've ever seen."
He specifically seized on remarks by Rush Limbaugh and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich calling Sotomayor a "racist," as well as former Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo's assertion that her association with the Hispanic group La Raza is the equivalent of a membership in the Ku Klux Klan.
Leahy said that the Judiciary Committee's hearings would not begin until after June, but "with the attacks that have been going on against her, I believe it'd be irresponsible to leave her hanging out there."
Sotomayor began her day meeting with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada. Reid praised her academic and judicial background, as well as her "compelling" life story.
Reid's sit-down was largely a "get-to-know-you" session in which he talked about Sotomayor's humble Bronx, New York, roots and path to success, according to two Democratic sources familiar with the meeting.
He largely avoided questions about her positions and approach to the bench, knowing she will get those questions from members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, one of the sources added.
Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, promised after meeting with Sotomayor that she would get a "fair hearing."
"I'd like people to say this is the best hearing we've ever had," he said.
Sessions said that while he didn't directly bring up her controversial Latina remarks, he did discuss the "idea and concept of personal feelings (and) how that influences a decision."
He also urged Leahy to keep an "open mind" on a timetable for Sotomayor's confirmation calendar, arguing in favor of hearings in September.
Reid also was non-committal when asked about a timetable, saying only that "we're going to do this as quickly as we can (but) won't set any arbitrary deadlines."
President Barack Obama has called for his nominee to be confirmed before the start of the next Supreme Court term in October.
Sotomayor was also expected to spend part of her day on Capitol Hill meeting with her home-state senators, New York's Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand.
Her afternoon schedule included meetings with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky; and Sessions.
She was additionally slated to sit down with Sens. Richard Durbin, D-Illinois; Dianne Feinstein, D-California; Orrin Hatch, R-Utah; and Jon Kyl, R-Arizona.
"The court is always supposed to apply the law" but never legislate, Kyl told a group of reporters earlier in the day.
"And so, I think what this could boil down to - and we'll have to examine very carefully all of the evidence - is what this judge's view of judging is," he said.
A Supreme Court nominee's initial meetings on Capitol Hill, while often a mere formality, can occasionally prove to be pivotal.
Most recently, Justice Samuel Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts' Senate meetings went smoothly. President George W. Bush's nomination of Harriet Miers, however, was pulled after after senators in both parties emerged from private sessions calling her unqualified.
Most of Sotomayor's critics concede that she is qualified, though they are still expected to use their meetings to ask a number of pointed questions.
GOP leaders have specifically focused on Sotomayor's appellate court decision against a mostly white group of firefighters who say they were discriminated against after a promotion test was thrown out because, according to critics, it discriminated against minority firefighters.
The Supreme Court is set to rule on an appeal of Sotomayor's decision by the end of its current term in June.
"She's going to have to convince me that if I found myself in court against someone she had a lot of empathy for, that I'd get a fair shake," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina.
"If she can't, I won't vote for her." Republicans, however, have their own political worries. CNN political analyst David Gergen said they risk putting themselves on
trial in front of Latino-Americans.
"If they line up uniformly in hostility against the first Hispanic woman to the court, they risk paying a terrible price with the biggest and fastest-growing minority in this country," Gergen said.
Despite what seems at the moment like a nomination on a fast track, Republicans are still demanding ample time to read Sotomayor's thousands of rulings before public hearings begin.
–CNN's Jim Acosta and Dana Bash contributed to this report