WASHINGTON — The Senate on Thursday voted 68-31 to confirm veteran federal appellate judge Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court, and on Saturday she'll become the court's first Hispanic justice.
Sotomayor, 55, was touted during three days of Senate debate as an American success story. Raised in a Bronx, N.Y., public housing project by a single mother, she had a stellar academic career and served as a federal prosecutor, trial judge and appellate court judge before President Barack Obama made her his first Supreme Court choice.
At the White House, Obama hailed the vote, saying "these core American ideals — justice, equality, and opportunity — are the very ideals that have made Judge Sotomayor's own uniquely American journey possible. They're ideals she's fought for throughout her career, and the ideals the Senate has upheld today in breaking yet another barrier and moving us yet another step closer to a more perfect union."
He said he was "very happy" that she got 68 votes.
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Those were the same thoughts Senate Judiciary Committee Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., expressed at the end of the debate.
"It is distinctively American to continually refine our Union, moving us closer to our ideals. Our Union is not yet perfected, but with this confirmation we will be making progress," he said. "Years from now, we will remember this time, when we crossed paths with the quintessentially American journey of Sonia Sotomayor and when our nation took another step forward through this historic confirmation process."
The overwhelming vote was expected, as nine Republicans joined 57 Democrats and two independents to support her. The Senate exuded the air of history that it sometimes gets, as most of the 100 senators sat in their seats for the vote, rising when their names were called. Only Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., who's ailing with a brain tumor, wasn't present.
While Sotomayor initially is expected to leave the court's ideological balance unchanged — she replaces David Souter, who generally voted with the court's more-liberal bloc — her opponents made sure that they sent a strong message of their own about future nominees.
Sotomayor got more votes against her confirmation than any Democratic president's Supreme Court nominee since the Senate rejected Grover Cleveland's nomination of Wheeler Peckham in 1894. This time, conservatives were telling Obama that they're ready to fight hard against future nominees whom they consider dangerously liberal.
"There are messages being sent," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who voted against a Supreme Court nominee for the first time in his 32-year Senate career.
The next fight may not be long in coming. One justice, John Paul Stevens, is 89, and four others are more than 70 years old. Some, such as cancer survivor Ruth Bader Ginsburg, have battled disease.
As the first Democratic appointee in 15 years, Sotomayor is widely considered an even swap for Souter.
History, though, suggests that justices can be unpredictable.
Earl Warren, the chief justice from 1953 to 1969, was the 1948 Republican vice presidential nominee and in his third term as California's governor when GOP President Dwight Eisenhower appointed him. Yet Warren became a hero to liberals for actions such as the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that declared public school racial segregation unconstitutional.
Souter, appointed by President George H. W. Bush in 1990, was a surprise, too. He disagreed with Chief Justice John G. Roberts in 43 percent of the cases last term, according to records compiled by Scotusblog.com. Roberts was appointed by President George W. Bush. By contrast, Ronald Reagan appointee Anthony Kennedy disagreed with Roberts only 13 percent of the time.
One open question about Sotomayor is whether she'll prove more personally influential than the loner Souter, who dissented 25 times last year, second only to Stevens.
"She definitely seems to be a more assertive person, so she'll likely be a stronger and more persuasive voice," predicted Katy Harriger, a political science professor at Wake Forest University in North Carolina who's researching race and the Supreme Court.
Sotomayor will face tough decisions immediately. On Sept. 9, she and her colleagues will convene early to consider a case involving corporate campaign contributions. The high-profile case, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, initially centered on an anti-Hillary Clinton movie.
The court has since expanded the case so that the justices can decide whether to uphold current bans on corporate contributions.
Sotomayor's homework also will extend to some 34 other cases already on the court's 2009-2010 docket. The regular court term begins on Oct. 5.
The pending cases, which likely will double by the time the term ends in June, range from a challenge to Florida's policy of restoring storm-eroded beaches to a radioactive waste dispute pitting North Carolina against Alabama.
Few of those cases came up during this week's Senate debate; instead, it was largely a combination of personal testimony for or against the nominee, or a collection of speeches aimed at framing issues for upcoming nomination fights — and political campaigns.
Of Republicans who voted for Sotomayor, four — Mel Martinez of Florida, Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, Kit Bond of Missouri and George Voinovich of Ohio — are retiring next year.
The "no" voters charged that Sotomayor was too often guided by her heart, not by the law, and that her heart is grounded in liberal principles. GOP senators cited Sotomayor's speeches and writings — notably her 2001 remark that a "wise Latina'' could reach "better conclusions" than a white male "who hasn't lived that life."
"I was and remain particularly troubled by Judge Sotomayor's speeches about gender and ethnicity," said Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, the Senate's second-ranking Republican.
GOP senators also stressed some of her rulings, notably a case involving New Haven, Conn., firefighter Frank Ricci, the lead plaintiff in a landmark case that challenged the city's refusal to promote white firefighters after African-Americans and all but one Hispanic didn't score well on a promotion test.
The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 for Ricci in June, overturning an appellate court decision with Sotomayor in the majority.
Many conservatives saw the votes for and against Sotomayor as votes they expect to reverberate politically.
"The Republican senators and red-state Democrats who have decided to support her . . . should be very concerned what price they may pay," warned Ralph Reed, a conservative activist, in a memo to supporters.
Grover Norquist, another conservative strategist, explained why: "Guns and quotas," he said.
National Rifle Association leaders said in a letter to senators that their vote on Sotomayor "will be considered in NRA's future candidate evaluations."
Sotomayor backers scoffed at the idea that Thursday's vote will be costly to them, and said that supporters could even gain politically by backing the first Latino justice, while opponents could lose support from the growing Hispanic population.
After all, said Judith Lichtman, a senior adviser to the National Partnerships for Women and Families, an activist group, Sotomayor "has won support from senators across the ideological spectrum," citing the backing of conservative Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
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