Sotomayor is sworn in, but the politics are far from over

It’s a dilemma for the GOP, particularly among Hispanic voters. But Democrats could feel a backlash if she’s perceived as too liberal.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Sonia Sotomayor, joined by her brother, Juan Luis Sotomayor, and her mother Celina Sotomayor, completes the oath administered by Chief Justice John Roberts to become the Supreme Court's first Hispanic justice in the court's 220-year history, in Washington, Saturday, Aug. 8, 2009.

The swearing in of Sonia Sotomayor as the nation’s first Hispanic and third woman to sit on the Supreme Court of the United States was decidedly nonpolitical. President Obama had decided not to attend, and the ceremony was at the high court itself -- not in the White House, as had been the practice for decades.

The picture of solemnity and celebration as Chief Justice John Roberts administered the judicial oath before TV cameras -- another first -- was in sharp contrast to the highly-partisan and sometimes rancorous confirmation run-up to Saturday morning’s historic event.

But are the politics of Associate Justice Sotomayor’s appointment now over? Far from it.
In the Senate confirmation vote, all but a handful of Republicans voted against her, and many see this as trouble for a party increasingly rejected by Hispanic voters. And it’s not just Democrats making this point.

Conservative MSNBC host Joe Scarborough (a former Republican congressman) said this about the GOP’s action on Sotomayor: “What’s wrong with them? … It’s about as short-sighted and stupid as any political move this year.”

The first test could come in the midterm elections next year.

Writing in, Steven Shepherd points out that “of the GOP senators standing for re-election next year, all 12 voted against Sotomayor.” That includes Robert Bennett of Utah and John McCain of Arizona who are facing primary challenges.

In states with relatively high percentages of Hispanic voters -- Arizona (16 percent), Florida (14 percent), Nevada (15 percent), and Texas (20 percent) -- only one Republican senator voted for Sotomayor. That’s Mel Martínez of Florida, who’s just announced his early retirement.

In a New York Times blog post, Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, says the sizable GOP vote against Sotomayor (plus the harangues of unofficial party leaders like Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich) are “more than enough to remind [Hispanics] of why they don’t vote Republican very often these days.”

At the University of Minnesota’s “Smart Politics” blog, Eric Ostermeier points out that the potentially most-vulnerable GOP senators -- those with the lowest margin of victory in the party caucus -- all voted against Sotomayor.

It’s a dilemma for the GOP, Mr. Kohut points out, particularly since polls showed that a plurality of Republicans (and a majority of conservative Republicans) opposed the Sotomayor nomination.

“The vote represents the dilemma the GOP faces coming out of its 2008 and 2006 election defeats: how to keep its base happy, on the one hand, and broaden its appeal to women, Latinos, and young people, on the other,” Kohut writes.

All may not be grim for Republicans as Sotomayor gets fitted for her new judicial robes and crams for her first deliberations on the high court.

Writing on, Ken Klukowski of the conservative American Civil Rights Union argues that the 68 - 31 confirmation vote is “a mixed result at best, and if her rulings from the bench show a clear liberal philosophy then the end result will be negative for the White House and Democrats.”

“The president and his party, and especially Senate Democrats from red states, will now have to answer for Sotomayor if she proves true to expectations as a solidly-liberal justice,” Mr. Klukowski writes.

It’s too soon to know if that proves true, of course.

But using statistical analysis, researchers at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, predict that “Justice Sonia Sotomayor will cast a liberal vote in roughly 67 percent of cases during her first term on the Supreme Court, which will make her the most liberal member of the current court.”

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