Sotomayor gets committee nod for Supreme Court seat

But the Senate panel vote is nearly party-line, with just one Republican approving her nomination.

Susan Walsh/AP
The Senate Judiciary Committee gathered on Capitol Hill Tuesday for the markup vote on the nomination of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor.

President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Sonia Sotomayor, received an important stamp of approval from the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, pushing her one step closer to her expected confirmation by the full Senate next week.

The vote was 13 to 6, with only one of the committee’s seven Republicans announcing he would cross the partisan divide to vote for Ms. Sotomayor. Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said he would not have nominated Judge Sotomayor if he were president, but that he came away from the hearings feeling she was well qualified to serve as a justice.

“This is the first Latino woman in the history of the United States to be selected for the Supreme Court. Now that is a big deal,” he said. “If she, by being on the court, will inspire young women – particularly Latino women – to seek a career in the law, that would be a good thing,” Senator Graham said. “America has changed for the better with her selection.”

Upon confirmation by the full Senate, Sotomayor would make history becoming the first Hispanic and only the third woman to sit on the nation’s highest court. Sotomayor is of Puerto Rican heritage.

As part of its constitutional responsibility to provide “advice and consent” regarding presidential nominees, the Judiciary Committee examined Sotomayor’s 17-year record as a federal trial and appeals court judge. Committee members also studied her speeches and other statements made about the law, and her prior experience as a prosecutor and corporate lawyer in New York.

The committee conducted four days of hearings, including two days questioning Sotomayor herself.

The Republicans who voted against her nomination said they remained troubled by comments and speeches she’d given suggesting to them that she believes that the race, gender, and ethnicity of a judge can, and should, play an important role in judicial decisions. During the hearings Sotomayor told the senators she believes in fidelity to the law.

Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy said critics of Judge Sotomayor were wrong to focus on her speeches. He said her record as a judge is the best measure of what type of justice she would become. “In her 17 years on the bench there is not one example, let alone a pattern, of her ruling with bias or sympathy,” he said.

The top-ranking Republican on the committee, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, was not persuaded. “In speech after speech, year after year, Judge Sotomayor set forth a fully formed judicial philosophy that conflicts with the American ideal of blind justice to the law,” he said. In her most important judicial rulings, he said, she issued unacceptably short and cursory decisions that favored a “liberal pro-government ideology against individuals attempting to assert their constitutional rights.”

In supporting Sotomayor, Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York emphasized Sotomayor’s rise from a Bronx housing project to a nomination to the highest court in the land. “It is a great American story. It will inspire Americans of all races and creeds and colors to reach further and aim higher,” he said.

The timing of the confirmation vote is important. If confirmed, Sotomayor would have roughly four weeks to move to Washington, organize her chambers, hire law clerks, and prepare for a special Supreme Court session set for Sept. 9. That case involves a challenge to a portion of the federal campaign finance laws authorizing restrictions on corporate spending that might influence imminent elections.

The high court’s next term begins in early October.
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