WASHINGTON — The bat­tle is on between con­ser­v­a­tive and lib­er­al inter­est groups to define lit­tle-known fed­er­al judge Sonia Sotomay­or before sen­a­tors — away from the cap­i­tal on a week­long break — return to weigh in on the fate of the woman who would be the Supreme Court’s first His­pan­ic.

Repub­li­can sen­a­tors are speak­ing in cau­tious but mea­sured tones about Sotomayor’s qual­i­fi­ca­tions and fit­ness for the court while Democ­rats are join­ing the White House in singing her prais­es. But the out­side orga­ni­za­tions that have a major stake in a high-court fight are tak­ing up war­ring posi­tions.

Con­ser­v­a­tive groups brand her an activist who would impose her own views and eth­nic and gen­der bias­es on her inter­pre­ta­tion of the law and the Con­sti­tu­tion.

“Equal jus­tice under law — or under attack?” a Web ad by the con­ser­v­a­tive group Judi­cial Con­fir­ma­tion Net­work asks. “Amer­i­ca deserves bet­ter” than Sotomay­or, it con­cludes.

Lib­er­al groups hit back with their own cam­paign to paint Sotomay­or as an expe­ri­enced and fair judge whose back­ground gives her a bet­ter under­stand­ing of how the court affects real peo­ple and their lives.

“Prin­ci­pled. Fair-mind­ed. Inde­pen­dent,” asserts a TV spot by the lib­er­al Cen­ter for Con­sti­tu­tion­al Val­ues.

Ses­sions doesn’t fore­see fil­i­buster
The noise drowned out a more nuanced and polit­i­cal­ly sen­si­tive dis­cus­sion to come on just how far Repub­li­cans will want to go in oppos­ing Sotomay­or. Sen. Jeff Ses­sions of Alaba­ma, the senior Repub­li­can on the Judi­cia­ry Com­mit­tee, said he doesn’t fore­see a fil­i­buster to block a vote on Sotomay­or, and Democ­rats appear to have more than enough votes to con­firm her.

Nev­er­the­less, Democ­rats, sig­nal­ing that they intend to score polit­i­cal points against Repub­li­cans in the debate over Sotomayor’s nom­i­na­tion, e-mailed con­trib­u­tors telling them that the GOP was “ready to obstruct.” Sen. Robert Menen­dez, D-N.J., the head of the party’s Sen­ate cam­paign com­mit­tee, wrote that “we have a fight on our hands” over Sotomayor’s nom­i­na­tion.

The judge’s Capi­tol Hill debut could come as ear­ly as next week, when top aides said she could begin mak­ing per­son­al “cour­tesy calls” to Sen­ate lead­ers and mem­bers of the Judi­cia­ry Com­mit­tee. For now, with many of the sen­a­tors who hold the judge’s fate in their hands scat­tered in home-states across the coun­try or des­ti­na­tions around the world dur­ing their week­long con­gres­sion­al break, there’s lit­tle pub­lic par­ti­san debate about Sotomayor’s nom­i­na­tion.

In pri­vate, the 54-year-old Sotomay­or — a vet­er­an of the fed­er­al bench who was reared in Bronx hous­ing projects and attend­ed Prince­ton and Yale en route to the high­est ech­e­lons of the legal pro­fes­sion — phoned key sen­a­tors as she began prepar­ing to face them in high-stakes hear­ings. Since Pres­i­dent Barack Oba­ma announced her nom­i­na­tion Tues­day, she has spo­ken with Sen­ate Major­i­ty Leader Har­ry Reid, D-Nev., and GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Ken­tucky, as well as Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., the Judi­cia­ry chair­man, and Ses­sions.

Staffers on the Judi­cia­ry pan­el, which will run hear­ings on Sotomayor’s nom­i­na­tion, hud­dled research­ing her record and released a detailed, 10-page ques­tion­naire the judge will have to answer in advance of the pub­lic ses­sion she will under­go with sen­a­tors. Demo­c­ra­t­ic aides on the pan­el met on Capi­tol Hill Thurs­day with White House offi­cials to plot strat­e­gy.

The ques­tion­naire asks Sotomay­or to divulge per­son­al, finan­cial and employ­ment infor­ma­tion and to pro­vide copies of all her writ­ings, speech­es, inter­views and opin­ions. She also has to list any poten­tial con­flicts of inter­est and describe how she would resolve them and reveal details about her nom­i­na­tion, includ­ing whether she was asked by any­one how she would rule on any poten­tial Supreme Court case or issue and how she respond­ed.

Mean­while, the White House is con­tin­u­ing the care­ful pack­ag­ing of Sotomay­or that offi­cials set in motion with the announce­ment of her selec­tion. They arranged a con­fer­ence call Wednes­day with six legal experts and attor­neys who are Sotomay­or boost­ers to rebut charges that she would bring a per­son­al agen­da to the court or strive to use rul­ings to make pol­i­cy.

“Judge Sotomay­or is not the kind of judge who thinks it is her job to fix every social ill in the world,” said Kevin Rus­sell, a lawyer who has argued before her.

Con­ser­v­a­tives point­ed with par­tic­u­lar con­cern to a 2001 speech Sotomay­or made at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia at Berke­ley Law School in which she said, “Our expe­ri­ences as women and peo­ple of col­or affect our deci­sions.”

Dis­crim­i­na­tion cas­es
In dis­cussing dis­crim­i­na­tion cas­es, Sotomay­or also referred to a remark at times attrib­uted to for­mer Jus­tice San­dra Day O’Connor that “a wise old man and a wise old woman reach the same con­clu­sion” and said that she didn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly agree.

“First, as Pro­fes­sor Martha Minow has not­ed, there can nev­er be a uni­ver­sal def­i­n­i­tion of wise,” Sotomay­or said. “Sec­ond, I would hope 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.”

For­mer House Speak­er Newt Gin­grich, R-Ga., sug­gest­ed Sotomay­or was a racist, writ­ing in a blog post­ing: “Imag­ine a judi­cial nom­i­nee said ‘my expe­ri­ence as a white man makes me bet­ter than a Lati­na woman.’ Wouldn’t they have to with­draw? New racism is no bet­ter than old racism. A white man racist nom­i­nee would be forced to with­draw. Lati­na woman racist should also with­draw.”

At the White House, spokesman Robert Gibbs labored to answer ques­tions about Sotomayor’s state­ment, ulti­mate­ly resort­ing to admon­ish­ing reporters not to pluck one remark out of a larg­er speech and an exten­sive record of rul­ings and writ­ings.

“We can all move past YouTube snip­pets and half-sen­tences and actu­al­ly look at the hon­est-to-God record,” Gibbs said. “I think she’s talk­ing about the unique expe­ri­ences that she has.”