The Senate has confirmed Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court in a historic vote that will make her the nation’s first Hispanic justice and the third woman appointed to the Court.
Sotomayor, born in New York City to parents who moved there from Puerto Rico, won over nine Republican senators to go with the 59 members of the Democratic caucus who were present. The final margin of 68-31 was larger than the 58-42 vote three years ago for Justice Samuel Alito Jr., but it was still a smaller margin than other justices have received.
The vote gives President Barack Obama’s administration a significant, early win in the judicial confirmation wars. Smaller battles are just over the horizon, as the Senate considers whether to confirm Obama’s first nominees for federal circuit courts.
Sotomayor’s confirmation was never in doubt, even as many Republicans cast her as a judge who would allow personal biases to influence her decisions. Democrats characterized her as a moderate, pointing to her 17-year record as a judge in the Southern District of New York and on U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit.
Sotomayor replaces retired Justice David Souter, who spent 19 years on the Court but submitted his resignation this spring to return to New Hampshire.
No plans for Sotomayor’s swearing-in have been announced, but she is likely to take her seat within days if not hours. She will participate in her first oral argument next month, when the Court rehears the campaign finance case Citizens United v. FEC.
The nine Republicans who supported confirmation included four who are retiring from the Senate, as well as others who have relatively moderate voting records. Their support, as well as the support of conservative Democrats, came despite an announcement by the National Rifle Association that a vote for confirmation would lower the ratings the NRA gives them.
Debate lasted parts of three days, as senators reiterated arguments they have been making for months. In the end, they returned to analyzing the statements of a former colleague, President Barack Obama, endorsing the role of empathy in a judge’s decision-making.
“The power to rule on empathy is the power to rule on prejudice. And the power to deny the rights of some is the power to deny the rights of any, or all,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee. “A judge embraces empathy at the expense of objectivity — and equality and fairness.”
Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) accused Republicans of misconstruing Obama’s words. “He has never said he would substitute empathy for the rule of law. That’s a false choice. And opposition to this nomination has been based on a false premise,” Leahy said. “Judge Sotomayor reiterated, time and time again during her confirmation hearing, her fidelity to the law.”
The only senator who did not vote was cancer-stricken Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), a former chairman of the Judiciary Committee and a central figure in past confirmation fights.
Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) announced the final tally from the presiding officer's chair, which freshmen senators typically occupy.