Judge Sonia Sotomayor, who rose from the housing projects of the Bronx to the top of the legal profession, made history Thursday when the Senate confirmed her to become the nation’s first Hispanic Supreme Court justice.
Sotomayor was easily confirmed in a 68-31 vote. Nine Republicans joined a unanimous Democratic caucus in supporting her nomination. Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, supported Sotomayor but was not present for the vote because of illness. Sotomayor, a 55-year-old federal appeals court judge, will be the 111th person to sit on the high court and the third female justice. She will be sworn in at the Supreme Court by Chief Justice John Roberts on Saturday. Sotomayor was confirmed after senators spent a final day of debate rehashing the main arguments for and against her. President Obama, who selected Sotomayor on May 26, said he was “deeply gratified” by the Senate vote. “This is a wonderful day for Judge Sotomayor and her family, but I also think it’s a wonderful day for America,” Obama said at the White House. Democrats continued to praise Sotomayor as a fair and impartial jurist with an extraordinary life story. Many Republicans continued to portray her as a judicial activist intent on reinterpreting the law to conform with her own liberal political beliefs. Among other things, Republican opponents emphasized concerns over her statements and rulings on hot-button issues such as gun control, affirmative action and property rights. See how Sotomayor measures up with her new colleagues » Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, helped close the debate by stressing the historic nature of the nomination.
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“It is distinctively American to continually refine our union, moving us closer to our ideals. Our union is not yet perfected, but with this confirmation, we will be making progress,” Leahy said on the Senate floor. “Years from now, we will remember this time, when we crossed paths with the quintessentially American journey of Sonia Sotomayor, and when our nation took another step forward through this historic confirmation process.” Leahy also took a swipe at Sotomayor’s critics for choosing “to ignore [her] extensive record of judicial modesty and restraint, a record made over 17 years on the federal bench.” Instead, he said, “they focused on and mischaracterized her rulings in just a handful of her more than 3,600 cases.” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, took aim at what he claimed was Sotomayor’s inability to refrain from bringing her personal political opinions to bear on her rulings. “In America, everyone should receive equal justice under the law,” McConnell said. “This is the most fundamental test for any judge and all the more so for those who would sit on our nation’s highest court, where a judge’s impulses and preferences are not subject to review. Because I’m not convinced that Judge Sotomayor would keep this commitment, I cannot support her nomination.”
Judiciary Committee votes to confirm Sotomayor
In depth: Sotomayor nomination
Several Republicans, however, bucked party leadership by voting in favor of Sotomayor. Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, announced Thursday morning that he had decided to back Sotomayor after weighing a range of factors, including her education, experience and temperament. “Judge Sotomayor is not the nominee I would have selected if I were president, but making a nomination is not my role here today,” Voinovich said in a written statement. “My role is to examine her qualifications to determine if she is fit to serve. … Based on my review of her record, and using these factors, I have determined that Judge Sotomayor meets the criteria to become a justice on the Supreme Court.” Voinovich was joined by Maine’s Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, New Hampshire’s Judd Gregg, Indiana’s Richard Lugar, Missouri’s Kit Bond, Florida’s Mel Martinez, South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham and Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander. Watch the Senate vote » In a telling political sign, none of the Republicans who voted for Sotomayor is seeking re-election in 2010. Conservative activists, including the powerful National Rifle Association, mounted a concerted effort to rally GOP opposition to Sotomayor. Sotomayor’s confirmation capped an extraordinary rise from humble beginnings. Her parents came to New York from Puerto Rico during World War II. Her father worked in a factory and didn’t speak English. She was born in the Bronx and grew up in a public housing project, not far from the stadium of her favorite team, the New York Yankees. Her father died when she was 9, leaving her mother to raise her and her younger brother. Her mother, whom Sotomayor has described as her biggest inspiration, worked six days a week to care for her and her brother, and instilled in them the value of an education. Sotomayor later graduated summa cum laude from Princeton University and went on to attend Yale Law School, where she was editor of the Yale Law Journal. She worked at nearly every level of the judicial system over a three-decade career before being chosen by President Obama to replace retiring Justice David Souter on the Supreme Court. Accepting the nomination, Sotomayor thanked Obama for “the most humbling honor of my life.”
After the selection, Sotomayor was touted by her supporters as a justice with bipartisan favor and historic appeal. She has served as a judge on the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals since 1998. She was named a district judge by President George H.W. Bush in 1992 and was elevated to her current seat by President Clinton. Sotomayor presided over about 450 cases while on the district court. Before her judicial appointments, she was a partner at a private law firm and spent time as an assistant district attorney prosecuting violent crimes.