WASHINGTON (BP)–The U.S. Senate confirmed Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court Thursday in a 68-31 vote, providing the country’s highest judicial panel with its first Hispanic and third female member.
Sotomayor will sit with the other justices for oral arguments for the first time Oct. 5, when the high court’s next term begins.
The strong roll-call margin for the judge President Obama selected from the Second Circuit Court of Appeals was not surprising. For weeks, her confirmation appeared to be sure. The most significant question seemed to be how many Republicans would vote for her.
In the end, nine GOP senators supported Sotomayor’s confirmation. Each of the 31 “nay” votes came from Republicans. All 59 Democrats present for the roll call voted for confirmation. Sen. Edward Kennedy, D.-Mass., supported confirmation but was unable to attend because of his ongoing battle with brain cancer.
After the vote, Obama commended his first nominee to the high court and the Senate’s accomplishment in “breaking yet another barrier and moving us yet another step closer to a more perfect union.”
“Like so many other aspects of this nation, I am filled with pride in this achievement and great confidence that Justice Sotomayor will make an outstanding Supreme Court justice,” the president said.
Many conservatives, pro-life leaders and pro-family advocates expressed concern about Sotomayor, who is of Puerto Rican descent, joining the Supreme Court. Though she has not ruled directly on abortion, for instance, there is a general assumption by pro-life advocates that she is pro-choice. That exists not only because of her past statements regarding judicial philosophy but because she was nominated by a president who endorses abortion rights and was supported by pro-choice senators, some of whom had private meetings with her.
Southern Baptist public policy specialist Barrett Duke called Sotomayor’s confirmation “the most far-reaching consequence of the 2008 elections to date.”
“Fortunately, the confirmation of Judge Sotomayor merely replaces a liberal [Associate Justice David Souter] with a liberal,” said Duke, the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission’s vice president for public policy. “The balance of the court is not significantly affected. However, everyone should recognize that her addition to the court extends the longevity of liberal, pro-abortion ideology on the nation’s highest court.”
Duke has “deep concerns” about her “ability to subordinate her ideological biases to the Constitution’s objective standards.”
“We will find out very soon which is the real Sonia Sotomayor, the one whose record and statements reveal a very liberal judge or the one who renounced her former way of life and pledged allegiance to the Constitution during her confirmation hearing,” Duke said. “We must all pray that God will give [Sotomayor] — as well as all of the other Supreme Court justices — wisdom as she sets herself to the task of judging impartially.”
In opposing her, Senate Republicans pointed to the contrast between Sotomayor’s assertion before the Judiciary Committee of fidelity to the law and some of her rulings on the bench. They cited what they described as opinions that clashed with such a philosophy of judicial restraint, including votes in decisions they said did not uphold property rights or equal protection in the workplace.
“America needs judges who are guided and controlled not by subjective empathy that they find inside themselves, but by objective law that they find outside themselves,” Sen. Orrin Hatch, R.-Utah, said from the Senate floor before the vote, according to a statement released by his office.
“I hope that on the Supreme Court, Judge Sotomayor will take an objective, modest and restrained approach to interpreting and applying written law. I hope that she actively defends her impartiality against subjective influences such as personal sympathies and prejudices. I hope that she sees the Constitution, both its words and its meaning, as something that she must follow rather than something she can change. Because the record does not convince me that she holds those views today, I cannot support her appointment to the Supreme Court.”
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D.-Vt., chairman of the Judiciary Committee, defended Sotomayor from the floor shortly before the vote.
“Judge Sotomayor reiterated time and time again during her confirmation hearing her fidelity to the rule of law,” Leahy said, according to a statement from his office.
“Those who, after four days of hearings, would ignore her testimony, should take heed of her record as a judge,” he said. “Judge Sotomayor has demonstrated her fairness and impartiality during her 17 years as a judge. She has followed the law.”
Some GOP senators, as well as the ERLC and other pro-life organizations, questioned her participation for 12 years on the board of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, which filed at least six legal briefs in support of the 1973 Roe v. Wade opinion legalizing abortion.
The ERLC had indicated its opposition to Sotomayor’s confirmation after an analysis of her record and reiterated it in a letter to the Judiciary Committee July 28, the day the panel voted 13-6 to send her nomination to the full Senate.
“Despite her compelling personal story, we remain unconvinced that Judge Sotomayor would apply the law with blind justice as required by the Constitution,” ERLC President Richard Land said in an Aug. 3 e-mail alert to constituents. “Simply put, she is out of the mainstream of the American public and too often of the very court for which she is being considered.”
Both Land and Duke commended Sotomayor’s inspiring ascendance from a childhood in a South Bronx housing project.
Judiciary Committee members, especially Republicans, questioned Sotomayor about her views on such controversial social issues as abortion and “same-sex marriage” during the July 13-16 hearing, but the nominee offered little in her answers to indicate how she would vote in such cases.
On Roe, she said the 1973 decision was “settled,” an answer that differed little from that given by even some conservative nominees in the past. Regarding “homosexual marriage,” Sotomayor said she had not prejudged the issue and would not allow her personal viewpoint to determine her decision.
Souter, the justice whom Sotomayor replaces, was a grave disappointment to social conservatives. President George H.W. Bush nominated Souter, then a new federal appeals court judge, to the Supreme Court in 1990 with the expectation he would be a reliable conservative vote. Instead, Souter voted with the liberal wing of the court consistently, even reaffirming in a 1992 opinion the Roe decision.
The nine Republicans who voted for Sotomayor’s confirmation are Sens. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Christopher Bond of Missouri, Susan Collins of Maine, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, Richard Lugar of Indiana, Mel Martinez of Florida, Olympia Snowe of Maine and George Voinovich of Ohio.
The newest justice joined the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, which is based in New York City, in 1998 as a nominee of President Clinton. President George H.W. Bush nominated her as a federal judge, and she was confirmed to that post in 1992.
Sotomayor, 55, will not be the high court’s youngest member. Chief Justice John Roberts is 54.
Compiled by Tom Strode Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press. With reporting by Michael Foust, an assistant editor of Baptist Press.