WASHINGTON — Judge Sonia Sotomayor, first Puerto Rican woman nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court, told a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing that her life story is “uniquely American” and that she now seeks a seat on the nation’s highest court to uphold the U.S. Constitution.

At one dramatic moment during questioning, she declared that a judge’s duty is to “apply the law, not make law.” Yet a judge’s background inevitably influences his or her thinking, she added. “We are not robots.”

And from the moment she took the witness chair, Sotomayor proved that she is anything but a robot.

She entered the Senate hearing room limping, her leg in a cast from breaking her ankle in a fall. She was accompanied by her mother, her brother and other family and friends.

She radiated personal warmth, smiling and greeting people in the packed room. Yet she was cool under fire as Republican senators unleashed a barrage of attacks on her support of affirmative action programs and her stand in support of tough gun laws.

She told of growing up in modest circumstances in the Bronx, her father a factory worker with a third-grade education who died when she was 9 years old. “On her own, my mother raised my brother and me,” instilling a love of learning, Sotomayor said. “And she set the example, studying alongside my brother and me at our kitchen table so that she could become a registered nurse.”

In her 17 years on the bench she said she has seen “children exploited and abused … victims’ families torn apart by a loved one’s needless death … I have witnessed the human consequences of my decisions.”

Her judicial philosophy, she continued, “is simple: fidelity to the law.” Since President Obama nominated her in May, she said she has received “letters from people all over the country … Each reflects a dream that led my parents to come to New York all those years ago. It is our Constitution that makes that dream possible and I now seek the honor of upholding the Constitution as a justice on the Supreme Court.”

But the Republicans relentlessly hammered her, hoping to force her into a meltdown.

The questions from Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama reflected his apparent belief that the most pitiful victims in American life are white males like himself.

Sessions was appointed by President Ronald Reagan to a seat on the federal bench in the 1980s. The Senate Judiciary Committee rejected him when his record as a U.S. attorney in Alabama was laid bare. He had run a witch-hunt campaign against African American leaders in Alabama accusing them falsely of “voter fraud.” He branded the NAACP as “un-American.” He once joined in describing a white civil rights attorney as a “disgrace to his race.”

So few were surprised when Sessions attacked Sotomayor for her “wise Latina woman” comment. Sessions complained bitterly that she had used the phrase not once but six times.

Sotomayor, smiling, replied that her comments had been quoted out of context.

Sessions pelted her with questions about a decision by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals rejecting a lawsuit by New Haven firefighters protesting the city’s decision to throw out test scores because they had a “disparate impact” on Black and Latino applicants. Sotomayor voted with the majority in that case. The Supreme Court recently reversed the appeals court ruling, upholding the firefighters claim.

Sessions charged that her vote in the appeals court ruling broke a tie and upheld a “racial preference.” Any decision that “favors one race over another,” he intoned, “must be subject to the strictest scrutiny”as required by the Supreme Court’s Adarand Construction v. Pena ruling in 1995.

Sotomayor explained that the appeals court had buttressed its position with a 78-page brief arguing that a “better test could be devised to avoid a disparate impact,” clearing the way to add African Americans to firefighter ranks. “What is a city to do when a test disparately affects groups within the city?” she asked.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, cited a recent decision written by Chief Justice John Roberts barring late-term abortions. It overturned seven earlier rulings that the health of the woman is “paramount” in her right to terminate a pregnancy. Feinstein quoted a scathing dissent by Justice Antonin Scalia criticizing Roberts and Alito for decisions overturning long-standing precedent “without acknowledging that they were doing so.”

Sotomayor said she would be guided by “stare decisis,” Latin for “stand by the decision” in upholding that protection for women. “Society has an important expectation that judges will not change the law based on personal whim,” she said.

The California senator also asked about claims of sweeping executive branch powers, such as warrantless wiretaps under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

Sotomayor replied, “The president cannot act in violation of the Constitution. No one is above the law.”

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