Most Americans Want Sotomayor on Supreme Court, Poll Indicates

Supreme Court nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor meets with senators in the weeks before her Senate confirmation hearings begin.
Supreme Court nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor meets with senators in the weeks before her Senate confirmation hearings begin. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
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By Jon Cohen and Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, June 28, 2009

A sizable majority of Americans want the Senate to confirm Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, and most call her "about right" ideologically, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

Senate hearings on Sotomayor, President Obama's pick to replace retiring Justice David H. Souter, begin in two weeks, and 62 percent of those polled support her elevation to the court. Sotomayor, 55, is currently a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit in New York.

If confirmed, Sotomayor would become only the third female justice and the second on the current nine-member court. But there is no gender gap in support for her, with men and women about equally likely to be on her side.

Partisan differences, however, abound. Nearly eight in 10 Democrats and about two-thirds of independents said they want the Senate to confirm Sotomayor, but that drops to 36 percent of Republicans. Overall, most Republicans deem the judge a "more liberal" nominee than they would have liked.

But Obama's nominee also divides Republicans: While conservative Republicans are broadly opposed, most Republicans who describe themselves as moderate or liberal support her. More than seven in 10 conservative Republicans said she is too liberal, which is more than double the proportion of centrist or left-leaning Republicans who say so.

Some opposition to her, however, comes from the other side, as about one in five of those who want the Senate to reject her see her as insufficiently liberal.

Overall, 55 percent of Americans said Sotomayor is about right on a liberal-to-conservative scale. About a quarter said she is a more liberal nominee than they would have liked, about the same proportion who called Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. too conservative when President George W. Bush nominated them.

This year, abortion politics again represent a deep dividing line in public attitudes, with about three-quarters of those who are pro-choice in all or most cases behind Sotomayor, compared with less than half of those who favor greater restrictions.

The majority of Americans who want the court to retain the landmark abortion decision Roe v. Wade has remained remarkably steady over the years, and currently six in 10 Americans would want the new justice to vote to uphold it.

This issue also exposes fissures in the GOP: Most Republican men would want Sotomayor to vote to overturn Roe, while Republican women split about evenly on the question.

Sotomayor would be the first Hispanic justice, and her speeches about how her life experiences and her close-knit Puerto Rican family in the Bronx have shaped her view of the judiciary have become somewhat controversial. Critics have seized on a passage in a 2001 speech she gave on separating personal views from an objective reading of the law: "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."

But most Americans do not think her life experiences influence the way she decides cases: Fifty-nine percent said the fact that she is a women does not factor in, and 52 percent said the same about her racial and ethnic background.

Among the 33 percent who said her gender plays a role, more than twice as many say that is a good thing than a bad thing. The groups most apt to call her gender a factor are those with a postgraduate education and liberal Democrats, and they overwhelmingly approve. Here, too, is no gender gap in attitudes.

On race and ethnicity, however, some groups tip the other way: Half of Republican men and 59 percent of conservative Republicans said these play a role in her decision making, with most of those who do saying that that is a bad thing.

The telephone poll was conducted June 18 to 21, among a random national sample of 1,001 adults. The results have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points.

Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company