Video: Awaiting the Sotomayor vote

updated 8/4/2009 7:55:30 PM ET 2009-08-04T23:55:30

The Senate held a history-making debate Tuesday on confirming Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor as the first Hispanic justice, with Republican opponents asserting she would bring bias to the bench and Democratic supporters saying she was a mainstream moderate.

There was little doubt that President Barack Obama’s first high court nominee would be confirmed with bipartisan support as early as Thursday, but senators lined up to weigh in on her fitness for the bench anyway, with an eye toward the history books, the nation’s burgeoning Hispanic electorate and perhaps the next Supreme Court battle.

“Judge Sotomayor’s journey to this nomination is truly an American story ... (and) a reminder to all of the continuing vitality of the American dream,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the Judiciary Committee chairman. His opening remarks framed Sotomayor’s confirmation as a step on the nation’s still-evolving “path of inclusion” that began with the Bill of Rights and continued with the extension of voting rights to women and enactment of the civil and voting rights laws of the 1960s.

“She’s a restrained, experienced and thoughtful judge who has shown no bias in her rulings,” Leahy said.

‘Siren call of judicial activism’
Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the panel’s top Republican and his party’s pointman on Sotomayor, called her a devotee of an approach that heeds “the seductive siren call of judicial activism” and is contrary to the “classical underpinnings” of the nation’s legal system.

“Judge Sotomayor’s expressed judicial philosophy rejects openly the ideal of impartial and objective judging. Instead, her philosophy embraces the impact that background, personal experience, sympathies, gender and prejudices — these are her words — have on judging,” Sessions said.

Nearly three-quarters of GOP senators have lined up against Sotomayor, but a handful are siding with Democrats to support her.

Earlier in the day, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the majority leader, lamented the partisan split over Sotomayor.

“She’s developed a 17-year record as a moderate, mainstream judge,” he said. “I’m disappointed not more of my colleagues on the other side of the aisle are likely to vote for this outstanding nominee.”

Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the minority leader, countered that Sotomayor fails the test of impartial justice, despite her impressive story and distinguished background.

There was so little doubt about the outcome of the confirmation vote that Sotomayor didn’t even come up at the White House when senators met Obama for lunch Tuesday to discuss their progress on the president’s top priorities, including health care and climate change legislation.

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“I mean, this is not even an issue,” Leahy said of Sotomayor’s confirmation as he returned from the midday gathering. “This one’s done.”

Daughter of Puerto Rican parents
Sotomayor, 55, is the daughter of Puerto Rican parents who was raised in a South Bronx housing project and educated in the Ivy League before going on to success in the legal profession and then the federal bench. Obama chose her to replace retiring Justice David Souter, a liberal named by a Republican president, and she’s not expected to alter the court’s ideological balance.

Still, Republicans call her an activist who would bring bias to the high court, pointing to a few rulings in which they argue she showed disregard for gun rights, property rights and job discrimination claims by white employees. They’re also unsatisfied with Sotomayor’s explanation of a 2001 speech — similar to comments she’s made throughout her career — in which she said she hoped a “wise Latina” usually would make better decisions than a white male.

Democrats point instead to a long record of rulings in which Sotomayor has reached the same conclusions as judges who are considered more conservative. They call her a moderate who is restrained in her legal interpretations and argue that her controversial remarks — while perhaps worded inartfully — show nothing more than a belief that diverse experiences help a judge see all sides of a case.

Some in the GOP have faced a tough call about how to vote on Obama’s nominee, torn between an impulse to please their conservative base by opposing her and a fear that doing so could alienate Hispanic voters.

NRA to downgrade supporting Senators
The decision was further complicated for some senators in both parties after the National Rifle Association announced it would downgrade senators who supported Sotomayor in its annual candidate ratings. That’s believed to have prompted many Republicans who initially considered backing Sotomayor to come out in opposition.

Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., said Tuesday he was joining the majority of his party in voting “no,” saying she hadn’t given enough assurances about her position on the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms. During her confirmation hearings, Sotomayor refused to say the amendment limited state as well as federal actions — a question on which the high court has yet to rule.

However, many Democrats and a couple of Republicans with perfect or near-perfect scores from the group are defying the NRA and voting for her anyway.

Meanwhile, Democrats are preparing to claim a big victory with Sotomayor’s confirmation. They planned a midday rally Wednesday on Capitol Hill with civil rights, minority and women’s groups.

More on: Sonia Sotomayor | Supreme Court

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