WASHINGTON — The Senate voted overwhelmingly Friday to confirm Stephen G. Breyer for a seat on the Supreme Court, making him President Clinton's second appointment to the high court in a year.
The 87-9 vote ensures that Breyer, 55, who has been chief judge of the U.S. 1st Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston, can join the court for the start of its fall term in October. He is expected to be sworn in next week, when he will become the nation's 108th justice. He replaces the retiring Harry A. Blackmun.
Breyer, who received news of the vote at the White House, pledged that he would "help make the law work better for people."
"The responsibility of that position is awesome, rather humbling," he said.
All the votes against Breyer were cast by Republicans, but he won support from 33 GOP senators.
The Senate heaped bipartisan praise on Breyer, who was chief counsel of the Senate Judiciary Committee before being appointed to the federal bench in 1980. Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, the panel's ranking Republican, called Breyer "a man of immense qualifications, a man of immense integrity."
Earlier this month, Breyer won unanimous approval from the committee's 10 Democrats and eight Republicans. Commending Breyer on his fairness and his skill in explaining complex issues, Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) said: "These qualities should serve Steve Breyer well on the Supreme Court."
Breyer's principal opponent, Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), said that the nominee had underestimated his financial liability and the possible conflicts of interest that could result from an investment in Lloyd's of London insurance syndicates.
Although Breyer dismissed the investment as insignificant during his confirmation hearings, Lugar said that Lloyd's insures industrial polluters, a situation that could force Breyer to recuse himself from toxic-waste and asbestos cases that may come before the court.
Breyer said that he would extricate himself from the investment as soon as possible. Hatch and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said that the committee had thoroughly examined the issue and found that it posed no judicial or ethical problems for Breyer.
Another opponent, Sen. Robert C. Smith (R-N.H.), said that Breyer had placed too much emphasis on the principle of separation of church and state.
"I cannot, in good conscience, vote to confirm a nominee whose personal background, judicial record and testimony indicates he will move the Supreme Court away from . . . conservative decisions," Smith said.
During three days of testimony before the committee, Breyer took generally liberal positions on such issues as affirmative action and the separation of church and state. But he also suggested that he could support capital punishment and stiff prison sentences.
Breyer and his wife, Joanna, have a net worth of $6.5 million, according to financial disclosure reports they filed with the Senate. They have a son and two daughters.
Breyer was considered briefly for a Supreme Court vacancy last year before Clinton selected Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was confirmed last August.