With scant support for Sotomayor, did the GOP hurt itself?

Republicans need to attract more Hispanic voters. But just nine in the Senate approved the first Hispanic justice’s nomination to the Supreme Court.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
Supporters of Judge Sonia Sotomayor applaud US Senator Al Franken (D) of Minnesota (r.) just off the senate floor after the US Senate confirmed Sotomayor to be seated on the Supreme Court, at the Capitol in Washington on Thursday.
Alex Brandon/AP
President Barack Obama speaks in the Diplomatic Room of The White House in Washington Thursday, about the Senate's confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor.

The Senate wrote a new page of US history on Thursday with the confirmation of Sonia Sotomayor as the first American of Hispanic heritage to sit on the Supreme Court. She also becomes only the third woman to serve as a justice.

The vote was 68 to 31. In addition to all 59 Senate Democrats, nine Republicans crossed the aisle and voted to support the nomination.

“I am filled with pride in this achievement,” President Obama said shortly after the vote. “This is a wonderful day for Judge Sotomayor and her family, but I also think it is a wonderful day for America.”

Mr. Obama praised the confirmation vote as “breaking yet another barrier and moving us yet another step closer to a more perfect union.”

Senate Democrats also noted the historic and inspiring nature of the vote.

“This is the American dream, the dream that we all speak about when we campaign -- but what we’ve done now has made it real,” said Senator Patrick Leahy, (D) of Vermont, after the vote. Sotomayor leaves her job as a judge on the Second US Circuit Court of Appeals in New York to become the nation’s 111th justice, replacing retiring Justice David Souter.

Several senators have described Sotomayor’s life as a classic American success story with similarities to Obama’s own experience. Raised by a single mother in a Bronx housing project, Sotomayor excelled at Princeton and at Yale Law School, worked as a prosecutor, corporate lawyer, and judge, and now rises to a position at the pinnacle of the American judiciary.

Her transition will be quick. The Supreme Court is set to hear a major challenge to the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law on September 9. In addition, the court’s next term is scheduled to begin in early October.

With a 60-member filibuster-proof Democratic majority in the Senate, Sotomayor’s confirmation appeared secure from the start. The only real suspense was how many Republicans would support her nomination.

The final 68 to 31 vote, with nine Republican cross-overs, places Sotomayor midway between Chief Justice John Roberts, who was confirmed 78 to 22 with 22 Democrat cross-overs, and Justice Samuel Alito who was confirmed 58 to 42, with only four Democrat cross-overs. Although better than Alito, Sotomayor’s number of cross-over votes was lower than Justice Clarence Thomas, who won the votes of 11 Democrats.

Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts did not participate in the vote because of illness.

During the two-month confirmation battle, Republican opponents focused on Sotomayor’s writings and controversial speeches, while Democrats emphasized her compelling personal story, her long record as a judge, her gender, and her ethnicity.

Some political analysts suggested Republicans would face a backlash by Hispanic voters if they didn’t support Sotomayor. Republicans attempted to counter that threat by discussing Democratic filibusters during the Bush administration that prevented Miguel Estrada, a Honduran-born lawyer, from obtaining an up-or-down vote on his nomination to a federal appeals court.

Sen. Robert Menendez (D) of New Jersey said Republican lawmakers who voted “no” on Sotomayor sent the wrong message on Thursday. “For Hispanics, we often get told you have to work harder,” he said. So when a nominee arrives who has succeeded at Princeton, Yale Law School, as a prosecutor, corporate lawyer, and as a judge, Senator Menendez said, many Hispanics were watching to see if she could break that final barrier to the Supreme Court.

“If you meet all the challenges you are told you have to meet and still can be told ‘no,’ then it sends a tough message to our community,” he said.

Her arrival on the high court next month is not expected to significantly shift outcomes in controversial cases. Some analysts say the real import of her confirmation is that at age 55 she may serve as a justice for 20 or 30 years and lay the groundwork for an eventual shift in the high court’s jurisprudence.

“She is not going to be another vote. She is not going to be another voice [on the Supreme Court],” said Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York. “She is going to be a real leader who will lead the court back to the mainstream.”


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