By Amy Goldstein and Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, July 29, 2009
A Senate committee endorsed Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor on Tuesday in a vote that splintered nearly along party lines, signaling that Republicans will not hesitate to oppose the first Hispanic nominee to the nation's highest court when the full Senate decides whether to confirm her next week.
Only one Republican, Lindsey O. Graham of South Carolina, joined the Senate Judiciary Committee's dozen Democrats in supporting Sotomayor. The six GOP senators who stood against her included two from states with heavy Hispanic populations and two veteran senators who had never before voted against a Supreme Court nominee.
Republicans and Democrats alike said that in a Senate with a heavy Democratic majority that is united solidly behind her, Sotomayor's confirmation is virtually assured.
Yet the sharp division evident in the committee attests to the increasingly partisan nature of Supreme Court confirmations in recent years. The votes against Sotomayor came despite several Republicans acknowledging during her confirmation hearings two weeks ago that her record in 11 years as a federal appeals judge is not especially liberal.
According to court watchers on and off Capitol Hill, the contours of the committee vote also pointed to a political calculation that many Senate Republicans are likely to make: that there is less political risk in potentially angering Latinos, the nation's largest minority group, than in disregarding intense pressure from conservative constituencies, including the National Rifle Association, that oppose her confirmation.
"The predictions that Republicans would roll over [for Sotomayor] were proven wrong," said Curt Levey, executive director of the conservative Committee for Justice, which opposes her confirmation.
GOP strategists and senior Senate aides challenged the conventional wisdom that a vote against the first Hispanic nominee could be politically dangerous. "I thought that voting for someone or not voting for someone based on their ethnicity or sex went out of fashion 40 years ago," said Don Stewart, communications director for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky).
Sotomayor is President Obama's first nominee to the Supreme Court. In addition to becoming the court's first Latina, she would become just the third female justice in its history. When he selected her in May, Obama emphasized Sotomayor's life story: rising from a poor childhood with a widowed mother in a Bronx housing project to attend two Ivy League universities and eventually become a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit.
So far, apart from Graham, just four GOP senators have said they plan to support Sotomayor. McConnell, the minority leader, announced the day after the confirmation hearings that he would vote against her. Some GOP senators have not disclosed how they intend to vote, and political strategists predict a few more could defect.
The partisan divide over Sotomayor's nomination stands in contrast to confirmations from slightly more than a decade ago. After being nominated by President Bill Clinton, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was confirmed by the full Senate in 1993 with only three dissenting votes, and Justice Stephen G. Breyer received only nine negative votes a year later.
Tuesday's vote was more polarized than the Judiciary Committee's September 2005 vote on John G. Roberts Jr., now the court's chief justice, when three Democrats joined Republicans in favor of his confirmation. It was less divided, however, than the panel's last vote for a Supreme Court nomination, in January 2006, when the it split purely along party lines over Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.
On Tuesday, the conservative Graham was the only Republican who argued for bipartisanship and deference to a president's preference for the nation's highest court. "I would not have chosen her, but I understand why President Obama did," he said.
Graham called her "left of center but certainly within the mainstream."
"She can be no worse than Souter from our point of view," he said, referring to conservatives' view of the man she would replace, David H. Souter, who was nominated by President George H.W. Bush but surprised Republicans by voting with the court's liberal minority.
Graham said his support for Sotomayor was motivated, in part, by an effort to end the fights in the Senate that have surrounded some judicial nominations in recent years, when Senate Democrats filibustered several of President George W. Bush's most controversial candidates for lower federal courts. Graham said that a perpetuation of such disputes could "drive good men and woman away from wanting to be judges" and render the judicial branch "just an extension of politics in another form."
The panel's other Republicans gave consistently negative appraisals of Sotomayor's judicial rulings, her statements off the bench, and her testimony before the committee. The ranking Republican, Sen. Jeff Sessions (Ala.), himself rejected by the same committee for a federal judgeship before he joined the Senate, said he had concluded that Sotomayor could not "set aside her personal opinions and biases."
The committee's chairman, Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) countered the GOP's central argument against her. "In her 17 years on the bench," Leahy said, "there is not one example, let alone a pattern, of her ruling based on bias or prejudice or sympathy." He called her a "restrained, fair and impartial judge who applies the law to the facts to decide cases."
Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.), a former chairman of the committee who recently switched political parties, defended Sotomayor's most controversial public remark: that a wise Latina judge might reach better decisions than a white man. Specter said that in the remark, "there is a little ethnic pride, and that is a pretty healthy thing."