WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Since her name has surfaced as a prime contender for a seat on the Supreme Court last week, Sonia Sotomayor, a federal appeals judge in New York, has already become an object of scorn and praise, of blistering attacks and spirited defenses.
Sotomayor is the subject of intense early scrutiny because she appeals demographically at least to two of President Obama's key constituencies: women and Latinos.
The case for a second female justice has been widely touted in Congress and by women's groups. But with 45 million Hispanics in the United States, they say it is high time for the first Latino justice, male or female.
"There will be great displeasure among Latinos and Latino leaders" if they are spurned again, as they were by the Bush administration, said Ramona Romero, president of the National Hispanic Bar Association. "My phone hasn't stopped ringing since Justice Souter's planned retirement came out. This is an issue of deep importance for our community."
But the fact that there aren't a lot of candidates known to be in the mix with the same attributes as Sotomayor raises another challenge for the president: how to balance the various lobbies with his own constitutional law professor's eye for legal ability as well as his desire for someone who has demonstrated empathy.
"The president would get down to null set (nothing) if you asked for a 45- to 50-year-old Hispanic woman with great life experience and is a heavily credentialed lawyer with an impeccable background," said Thomas Goldstein, a Washington, D.C., lawyer who regularly argues before the court. "Nobody knows who that person is. Something is going to have to give."
Sotomayor, 54, offers the kind of compelling life story that could appeal to Obama. A child of Puerto Rican parents, she grew up in a housing project in the South Bronx, near Yankee Stadium. She excelled as a student and graduated from Princeton University and the Yale Law School. Her ascent on the federal bench was bipartisan. President George H.W. Bush named her to be U.S. district judge in 1991, and President Bill Clinton elevated her to the U.S. court of appeals in 1997.
But more recently, she has been the subject of sharp criticism -- much of it from unnamed clerks and lawyers -- who said she could be abusive to lawyers and domineering in the courtroom. That in turn spurred counterattacks from supporters. They said she was being unfairly demeaned for her sharp questioning, which was mild in comparison to that of, for example, Justice Antonin Scalia.
So far, Obama has spoken of the nomination in general terms.
He says he wants someone with a diverse background, who has "empathy" for "people's hopes and struggles" -- perhaps a candidate who does not hail from traditional academic or judicial circles.
But he also is a former law professor who likely would want a nominee of sterling academic achievement who can hold his or her own with intellectual heavyweights on the high court. He is also expected to seek a candidate young enough to potentially serve on the bench for at least two decades.
He has yet to suggest that the choice must be of specific gender or minority. Plenty of interest groups, however, have been doing that for him. There is a near-universal belief beyond the White House that the pick will be a woman. Along with that, Obama is not only being pressed to name the first Hispanic, but the first Asian-American, or the first African-American woman, to the court.
"I don't think he can do it all now," said Lee Epstein, a Northwestern University law professor. "Who out there meets all of these various little boxes?"
And while the large Democratic majority in the Senate means that Obama has some latitude in his choice, Republicans promised this week to push back on a nominee they perceive to be beholden to specific minority or interest groups.
"The president is free to nominate whomever he likes," Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, said on the Senate floor Tuesday. "But picking judges based on his or her perceived sympathy for certain groups or individuals undermines the faith Americans have in our judicial system."
Obama has been careful to not make public promises. That's a contrast from President Reagan, who campaigned on a pledge to name the court's first female justice. He followed through, choosing Sandra Day O'Connor in 1981.
Even so, women's groups are clear in their position that the nominee should not be a man.
"We would be disappointed if it is not a woman," said Marcia Greenberger, co-president of the National Women's Law Center. "It is not acceptable to have only one woman on the Supreme Court."