WASHINGTON (CNN) - The Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Judge Sonia Sotomayor began Monday with leading Democrats and Republicans signaling a fierce ideological debate over her qualifications to become the nation's first Hispanic justice on the high court.
The Judiciary Committee is considering whether Sotomayor, a federal appellate judge, should be the 111th person to sit on the nation's highest court. If confirmed by both the committee and the full Senate, she would be the third woman justice.
"Judge Sotomayor's journey to this hearing room is a truly American story," committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, said after gaveling the first session to order. "Hers is a success story in which all Americans can take pride. ... Let no one demean this extraordinary woman."
Leahy also ripped conservative "ideological pressure groups" for "distorting" Sotomayor's record and opposing a woman who "will be a justice for all Americans."
However, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the committee's ranking Republican, said Sotomayor represents the kind of activist judge that threatens the traditional foundation of the U.S. legal system.
Sessions, a former prosecutor and attorney general in his home state, challenged the attribute of empathy cited by President Barack Obama in nominating Sotomayor.
"Call it empathy, call it prejudice, call it sympathy - whatever it is, it is not law," Sessions said.
In particular, Sessions quoted Sotomayor from past speeches in which she said a wise Latina woman should be able to reach a better ruling than a white man, saying it showed an inherent bias.
"I want to be clear: I will not vote for and no senator should vote for an individual nominated by any president who is not fully committed to fairness and impartiality toward every person who appears before them," Sessions said.
A smiling Sotomayor arrived on Capitol Hill still wearing a cast for a broken ankle she suffered a week after Obama nominated her.
The 55-year-old Sotomayor received a good-luck telephone call Sunday from Obama, according to a White House statement.
Democrats who hold a majority in both the Judiciary Committee and the full Senate have predicted she will easily win approval from both.
If history is a guide, Sotomayor appears certain to get Senate approval with mostly Democratic support. When she won Senate confirmation for the federal appellate court in 1998, there were 29 "no" votes - all cast by Republicans.