In a historic and divided 68-31 vote, the Senate on Thursday confirmed the nomination of appeals court judge Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court, making her the first Hispanic and third woman on the nation’s highest court.
The 55-year-old Sotomayor will be sworn in by Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. on Saturday at the Supreme Court, followed by a larger investiture event at the Court on Sept. 8. Administering the oath at the Court itself bucks the recent trend of justices being sworn in at the White House. In changing the custom, President Barack Obama is heeding concerns expressed by some justices — most recently John Paul Stevens — that a White House ceremony sends the inappropriate message that justices are beholden to their appointing president.
Confirmation of Sotomayor represents the culmination of a decades-long effort by Hispanic legal leaders and others to win appointment of a Hispanic justice to the high court. “Hispanic Americans have been finally given the respect we have yearned for for so long, the respect we have earned and deserve,” said Carlos Ortiz, a former president of the Hispanic National Bar Association.
Sotomayor will begin work at her new job as early as next week. The first oral argument she will hear as a justice is scheduled for Sept. 9, little more than a month from now. She’ll be working in temporary quarters at the Court because of ongoing renovations of the Court building.
The Senate vote followed three days of floor statements by senators, with Democrats singing her praises and most Republicans criticizing her record and statements at last month’s confirmation hearings.
“We stand witness to a coming of age in America,” said Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who said he never dreamed he would be able to vote for a fellow Hispanic on the high court. “This is America.” Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) added, “It’s time.” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said, “A more diverse Supreme Court is a better Supreme Court.”
But Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) said that past statements from Sotomayor emphasizing ethnicity and compassion were “polar opposites” from her studiously neutral confirmation testimony, leading him to conclude that her testimony was “contrived or far-fetched. I’m not sure which judge I am to believe.”
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, was sharply critical of Sotomayor, asserting that “she has bluntly advocated a judicial philosophy where judges ground their decisions not in the objective rule of the law, but in the subjective realm of personal ‘opinions, sympathies and prejudices.’ “
Sotomayor gained the support of nine Republican senators, who bucked pressure from party leadership and such groups as the National Rifle Association. Four of the nine are retiring from the Senate.
“Judge Sotomayor’s decisions, while not always the decisions I would render, are not outside the legal mainstream and do not indicate an obvious desire to legislate from the bench,” said Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio), the final Republican to announce his support for Sotomayor.
The 31 votes against her exceed the 22 received by Justice Roberts in 2005, but were fewer than the 42 cast against Justice Samuel Alito Jr. in 2006. (The only senator who did not vote was Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), who has cancer.)
On the question of where justices should be sworn in, Stevens said during a public event in February that holding the ceremony at the White House detracts from “the very separate status” of the Court. Stevens recalled that, when he became a justice in 1975, President Gerald Ford came to the Court for the swearing-in. Administering the oath at the Court is more appropriate, Stevens said, because when the ritual is over, “the justice is on his or her own” at the Court, separate from the president who made the appointment. “I was troubled by the incorrect symbolism” when justices took the oath at the White House, Stevens said.
Tony Mauro can be contacted at email@example.com.