By Amy Goldstein and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, August 7, 2009
The Senate, in a vote laden with history and partisanship, confirmed Sonia Sotomayor on Thursday as the 111th justice and the first Hispanic to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.
The confirmation of President Obama's first high court nominee was a milestone for his presidency. But the Senate's nearly 20 hours of debate over Sotomayor this week -- and the fact that only nine Republicans voted for her -- made clear the divisive contours her nomination had assumed since Obama chose her this spring.
Although the 68 to 31 vote was a GOP defeat, Republicans contended that they had succeeded at framing the confirmation debate in a way that could influence Obama's future nominations throughout the federal judiciary, including to the Supreme Court if vacancies arise.
In particular, Sen. Jeff Sessions (Ala.), the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said that Sotomayor and Democratic senators had discarded a standard that Obama and left-leaning legal thinkers have held out: the idea that judges should be guided, in part, by empathy. If Obama nominates other people to courts who believe in that idea, Sessions said, "I don't think that would play well. . . . It could hurt this administration in other areas."
The Senate's vote also provided evidence that sharp disagreements between the political parties have become a fixture of Supreme Court confirmations. Sotomayor drew more "no" votes than one of President George W. Bush's nominees, John G. Roberts Jr., and fewer than the other, Samuel A. Alito, Jr. But all three confirmations proved far more polarizing than had been traditional for the Senate, including as recently as the two justices chosen by President Bill Clinton in the 1990s.
During Sotomayor's confirmation hearings last month before the Judiciary Committee, even some Republicans said her record from 17 years as an appellate and trial judge fits within the legal mainstream. But in the end, more than three-quarters of the Senate's 40 Republicans voted against her, characterizing her as biased -- and wrong on three of her best-known rulings on constitutional matters.
Democrats spoke in partisan terms, too. Moments before the vote, Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.) implored every senator who opposed Sotomayor -- all of them Republicans -- to "search his or her conscience and say, 'Are they voting for this nominee based on their conscience, or are they reflecting a special interest group?' "
In casting their votes, senators used a formality reserved for their most momentous decisions, sitting at their wooden desks on the Senate floor and rising, one by one, to vote aloud. Once the roll call was complete, the White House swung into a celebratory mode. Obama, who nominated Sotomayor 10 weeks ago, placed a call to her chambers in New York at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, where she watched the televised vote with friends.
The Supreme Court announced that its newest member would be sworn in by Roberts, the chief justice, on Saturday morning at a small gathering at the high court. Sotomayor will take her seat on the court in early September when the justices convene for a rare hearing, outside their usual calendar, on a campaign finance case. She will begin her first full session on Oct. 5. Friends said she already has begun reading to prepare for her early cases.
In addition to becoming the first Hispanic to serve on the court, Sotomayor will be the third female justice in U.S. history and the second on the current court.
Thursday's vote culminated a remarkable path for Sotomayor, 55, whose personal narrative became such a defining aspect of her nomination that even her most ardent GOP critics praised her biography. She was raised -- poor and Puerto Rican -- by a widow in a South Bronx housing project, went on to Ivy League schools, and worked in New York as a prosecutor and at a private law firm before beginning her ascent through the federal judiciary. At age 38, she became a federal trial judge and, six years later, joined the appeals court on which she has served for 11 years.
In a statement after the vote, Obama said that "core American ideals -- justice, equality and opportunity -- are the very ideals that have made Judge Sotomayor's own uniquely American journey possible."
Despite the bipartisan admiration for her life story, Sotomayor's nomination became a fulcrum this spring and summer for interest groups on both sides to press their agendas. Advocates for Latinos and various civil rights organizations said she would bring renewed focus to their interests. Conservative groups sought to raise the political costs for GOP senators to support her, with the National Rifle Association taking the unusual step of saying it would consider Thursday's vote in its ratings of senators.
Sessions, who was once rejected by the Senate for a federal judgeship, said in an interview that Obama benefited during Sotomayor's confirmation from a confluence of circumstances that may not always be present during his tenure, potentially making it easier, in future nominations, for the GOP to pick off Democratic votes.
"Everything was working for the president this time: popular new president, a big Democratic majority in the Congress that wants to be supportive of him, and she was a good person and had a good background. . . . I think members of both parties were desirous of supporting the first Hispanic nomination."
In the final hours before the vote, GOP senators repeatedly sought to demonstrate that they had shaped the debate for the future, if not the outcome this time. "America needs judges who are guided and controlled not by subjective empathy that they find inside themselves," said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (Utah), a former Judiciary Committee chairman, "but by objective law that they find outside themselves."
Democrats countered that Sotomayor possesses values that the court and the nation need. "We have to ask ourselves: What direction will this nominee take the Supreme Court?" said Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.). "Will this nominee protect the civil rights and liberties enshrined in the Constitution and protected by law that we have fought so long and hard for? Will this nominee support Congress's power to enact critical legislation? Will this nominee be an effective check on the executive branch?" he said. "I have concluded that she is someone with whom our rights and freedoms are safe."
Taking the Senate floor for a final time in the long debate, Leahy, the judiciary chairman, pushed back against Republican contentions that the Senate was choosing a justice biased by her gender and ethnicity. "By striving for a more diverse bench drawn from judges with a wider set of backgrounds and experiences, we can better ensure that there will be no prejudices and biases controlling our courts of justice," he said. "With this nomination, we will be making progress. Years from now, we will remember this time, when we crossed paths with the quintessentially American journey of Sonia Sotomayor."