WASHINGTON — Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor picked up more GOP support Wednesday in her drive toward near-certain Senate confirmation this week as the first Hispanic justice, even as a growing chorus of Republicans called her unfit for the bench.
Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., became the seventh Republican to announce he'll vote for President Barack Obama's nominee, saying he disagrees with some of her rulings and statements but considers her a well-qualified jurist.
"There's been no significant finding against her, there's been no public uprising against her," said Bond, who is retiring. "I will support her, I'll be proud for her, the community she represents and the American dream she shows is possible."
Bond's comments came as Democrats were preparing to declare political victory on Sotomayor's confirmation, organizing the party's female senators, Hispanic leaders and civil rights groups, among others, to stress the historic nature of her confirmation. Latino leaders in particular warned that Republicans who opposed Sotomayor would feel political pain from their population, a large and fast-growing segment of the electorate.
"To say that you cannot vote for this qualified Latina to be on the United States Supreme Court sends a message to us as a community that we will not forget," said Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the Senate's lone Hispanic Democrat and his party's campaign committee chief. His comments, at a rally outside the Capitol with labor, civil rights and other liberal groups, were met with raucous cheers from a crowd waving signs bearing Sotomayor's picture and sporting "Sonia" buttons.
Sotomayor, 55, is the daughter of Puerto Rican parents who was raised in a South Bronx housing project and educated in the Ivy League before going on to success in the legal profession and then the federal bench. Obama chose her to replace retiring Justice David Souter, a liberal named by a Republican president, and she's not expected to alter the court's ideological balance.
Nearly three-quarters of the Senate's 40 Republicans oppose Sotomayor, leaving just a handful breaking with their party to join Democrats in backing her. That's still more than enough to easily confirm the judge, barring a surprise turn of events, in a vote expected as early as Thursday.
Many GOP senators, initially worried that opposing Sotomayor could alienate Hispanic voters, have nonetheless sided with their conservative base in branding her unacceptable for the high court. They're arguing that Sotomayor would bring bias to the court and allow a liberal agenda to trump the law.
"She has not stuck to the letter of the law," said Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C. "I'm concerned by the several examples where I believe Judge Sotomayor strayed from the rules of strict statutory construction and legal precedence and went with her own deeply held beliefs."
Two more previously uncommitted Republicans came out against Sotomayor as debate unfolded Wednesday. Wyoming Sens. Mike Enzi, in prepared remarks, and John Barrasso both said they would vote no.
Republicans call Obama's nominee an activist who would bring prejudice to the high court, pointing to a few rulings in which they argue she showed disregard for gun rights, property rights and job discrimination claims by white employees.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, cited all three issues. "I cannot vote to confirm a nominee to the United States Supreme Court who will restrict several of the fundamental rights and liberties in our Constitution, including our Bill of Rights," he said. "The stakes, I believe, are simply too high to confirm someone who could redefine the law of the land from a liberal perspective."
Republicans are also unsatisfied with Sotomayor's explanation of a 2001 speech — similar to comments she's made throughout her career — in which she said she hoped a "wise Latina" would usually make better decisions than a white male.
Democrats point instead to a long record of rulings in which Sotomayor has reached the same conclusions as judges who are considered more conservative. They call her a moderate who is restrained in her legal interpretations and argue that her controversial remarks — while perhaps worded inartfully — show nothing more than a belief that diverse experiences help a judge see all sides of a case.
"Real-world experience, real-world judging, an awareness of the real-world consequences of decisions are vital aspects of the law, and here we have a nominee who has had more experience as a federal judge than any nominee in decades," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the Judiciary Committee chairman.
Associated Press writer Ann Sanner contributed to this report.