Senate Panel OKs Sotomayor


supreme-courtThe Senate Judiciary Committee approved Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor by a 13-6 vote a short while ago, along almost perfect partisan lines and after two hours of debate. All Democrats voted for Sotomayor, President Obama’s first nominee to the high court. All Republicans except Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina, opposed. The nomination of Sotomayor, a 17-year veteran of the federal bench, now goes to the full Senate for a vote. That is likely to be held the week of Aug. 3, just before the Senate leaves for its summer recess.Graham said he was backing Sotomayor partly because he believed President Obama, having won last November’s election, deserved wide latitude to make appointments within the judicial mainstream. Graham deemed Sotomayor “well qualified,” of “good character” and within “the mainstream.”

Sotomayor would be the first Latina justice in U.S. history. “Now that’s a big deal,” Graham said.

And to his fellow conservative Republicans, Graham added, “She can be no worse than Souter, from our point of view.” Newly retired Justice David Souter, whom Sotomayor would succeed, was named by the first President Bush in 1990 yet became a reliable vote for the liberal wing.

Democrats currently control 60 of the 100 votes in the Senate, and an easy majority vote for Sotomayor is not in doubt. Sotomayor, who would become the 111th justice in history, would be the third woman ever appointed and the second current female justice. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is presently the only female on the nine-member high court.

The tenor of the Senate Judiciary Committee debate Tuesday had been foreshadowed by senators’ comments since Sotomayor’s four days of hearings concluded on July 16. Yet, while there was little suspense about the outcome in the cavernous hearing room of the Hart Building, every seat was filled and TV cameras ringed the room.

“Judge Sotomayor is well qualified,” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said Tuesday. “One need look no further than her experience, ability, temperament and judgment.”

The chairman stressed that Sotomayor had more bench experience than any nominee in 100 years. He quoted Sotomayor’s telling the committee, “throughout my 17 years on the bench, I have witnessed the human consequences of my decisions. Those decisions have not been made to serve the interests of any one litigant, but always to serve the larger interests of impartial justice.”

Leahy noted that during the hearings, almost 2,000 people had been able to get seats to watch the proceedings and millions more witnessed it, heard it, or read about it.

“I see her as a most impressive person on a number of different levels,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said, stressing Sotomayor’s personal story that began in a Bronx, N.Y., housing project and her extensive legal record, which included service as a local prosecutor in Manhattan and work as a corporate litigator. “I think this woman has done a splendid job. She has shown a dedication to the law.”

Leading committee Republican Jeff Sessions, of Alabama, said he was opposing Sotomayor because he believed her “personal biases” would taint her rulings. Her judicial philosophy conflicts with “blind justice,” Sessions said, as he focused on statements Sotomayor had made off the bench.

He and other Republican opponents referred Sotomayor’s statement, made in speeches, that she “would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion that a white male who hasn’t lived that life.” Sessions said such sentiment would slant her rulings.

Sotomayor, 55 and of Puerto Rican heritage, had told the committee that the statement was meant to inspire her audiences to strive to careers in the law and was not meant to reflect her approach to judging.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said he had come to the confirmation process wanting to vote for the nominee but said that in the end “her speeches and articles described a troubling approach to judging that her hearing testimony did not resolve. In some of her most important cases, she gave short shrift to fundamental constitutional rights.”

Joining Leahy, Feinstein and Graham in backing Sotomayor were Democrats Herb Kohl, of Wisconsin; Russ Feingold, Wisconsin; Charles Schumer, New York, Dick Durbin, Illinois; Benjamin Cardin, Maryland; Sheldon Whitehouse, Rhode Island; Amy Klobuchar, Minnesota; Ted Kaufman, Delaware; Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania; and Al Franken, Minnesota.

Joining Sessions and Hatch against Sotomayor were Republicans Chuck Grassley, of Iowa; Jon Kyl, Arizona; John Cornyn, Texas; and Tom Coburn, Oklahoma.

Beyond the committee, only a few Republicans, including Mel Martinez of Florida and Susan Collins of Maine, have so far announced they would vote for Sotomayor. In terms of bipartisanship, her final Senate vote might fall somewhere between the tallies of two recent appointees of President George W. Bush.

John Roberts was approved for chief justice in September 2005 by a vote of 78 to 22. All opponents were Democratic (another 22 Democrats supported Roberts). Samuel Alito was approved for an associate justice seat by a vote of 58 to 42 in January 2006. All but two of those “nay” votes came from Democrats.

Sotomayor, a graduate of Princeton University and Yale law school, was appointed a trial judge in 1992 by the first President Bush. President Clinton elevated her to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit in 1998.

Once on the Supreme Court, Sotomayor’s first order of business will include preparing for a major test of federal campaign finance law on Sept. 9. The case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission tests the constitutionality of federal regulation of corporate contributions to election campaigns. The regular 2009-2010 term officially begins on October 5, the first Monday in October.

{USA Today/Washington Times/ Newscenter}