The Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday voted to approve Sonia Sotomayor as the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice over nearly solid Republican opposition, paving the way for a historic confirmation vote next week.
The panel voted 13-6 in favor of Sotomayor, with just one Republican, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, joining Democrats to support her. The nearly party-line tally masked deeper political divisions within GOP ranks about confirming President Barack Obama's first high court nominee.
"I'm deciding to vote for a woman I would not have chosen," Graham said. Obama's choice to nominate the first-ever Latina to the highest court is "a big deal," he added, declaring that, "America has changed for the better with her selection."
The solid Republican vote against Sotomayor on the Judiciary panel reflected the choice many GOP conservatives have made to side with their core supporters and oppose a judge they charge will bring liberal bias and racial and gender prejudices to her decisions. Others in the party, however, are concerned that doing so could hurt their efforts to broaden their base, and particularly alienate Hispanic voters, a fast-growing segment of the electorate.
Democrats, for their part, are lining up solidly in favor of the 55-year-old federal appeals court judge, the daughter of Puerto Rican parents who was raised in a South Bronx housing project and educated in the Ivy League.
"There's not one example — let alone a pattern — of her ruling based on bias or prejudice or sympathy," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the Judiciary Committee chairman. "She has administered justice without favoring one group of persons over another."
The senior Republican, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, countered that Sotomayor's speeches and a few of her rulings show she would let her opinions interfere in decisions.
"In speech after speech, year after year, Judge Sotomayor set forth a fully formed, I believe, judicial philosophy that conflicts with the great American tradition of blind justice and fidelity to the law as written," Sessions said.
But even Sessions acknowledged the landmark nature of Sotomayor's nomination, in a remark that revealed just how certain he is that he'll end up on the losing side of next week's vote.
"I think all of us feel that it's a good thing that we have a Hispanic on the Supreme Court," he said minutes after the Judiciary Committee vote.
Sotomayor is not expected to tip the court's ideological balance, since she's replacing Justice David Souter, a liberal nominated by a Republican president. "She can be no worse than Souter from our point of view," Graham remarked.
Still, Republicans pointed with particular concern to Sotomayor's record on gun and property rights, as well as a much-discussed rejection by her appeals court panel of the reverse discrimination claims of white firefighters denied promotions.
The National Rifle Association is opposing Sotomayor and took the extraordinary step last week of warning senators that it would include their votes on her confirmation in its annual candidate ratings, meaning a "yes" vote would hurt their standing.
‘A liberal judicial activism’
"Some of her decisions demonstrated the kind of results-oriented decision-making, one that suggests perhaps a liberal judicial activism that has too often steered the court in the wrong direction over the last years," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.
And every GOP senator alluded critically to the now-infamous remark Sotomayor made in 2001 that she hoped a "wise Latina woman" would often reach better conclusions than a white male without similar experiences.
Sotomayor dismissed the comments during her confirmation hearings as a rhetorical flourish gone awry, a defense that rang hollow with many of her critics.
"I regret that I cannot vote for her ... not she's a Latina woman (or) because she said all those things, (but) because she wouldn't defend what she said, and stand up and say, 'I really believe this, but I can still be a great judge anyway, because I will never let that interfere with my judging,' " said Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.
The debate over Sotomayor's fitness for the court is as much about Obama — who will likely have at least one more chance to fill a Supreme Court vacancy — as it is about the judge herself, and senators treated the committee's vote on her nomination as an opportunity to face off on competing visions of the role of a judge.
Democrats said Sotomayor's background and her willingness to acknowledge how it might influence how she sees cases was an asset.
"She knows the law, she knows the Constitution, but she knows America, too," said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.
Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, a Republican recently turned Democrat, said Sotomayor's much-maligned comment reflected a woman standing up for women and someone exhibiting ethnic pride. "I didn't find fault with 'wise Latina woman,' I found it commendable," he said.
Republicans attacked Obama's stated view that a judge should have "empathy" — an ability to understand the effects of his or her decisions on people's lives — and presented Sotomayor as the personification of an unreasonable judicial standard.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, who called Obama's standard "radical," said Sotomayor's record shows "a judicial philosophy that bestows a pivotal role to personal preferences and beliefs in her judicial method."