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Republican senator backs Sonia Sotomayor

Mel Martinez of Florida is the first to break from the GOP during the Senate debate on Sotomayor's nomination to the Supreme Court. He calls her a 'mainstream' judge who would 'rule with restraint.'

August 06, 2009|James Oliphant

WASHINGTON — In the Senate, freedom apparently comes with retirement.

On Wednesday, three Republicans who are not seeking reelection next year broke with their party and announced they would support Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor.

The most notable was Christopher S. Bond, the four-term senator from Missouri. Joining him in backing President Obama's first high court pick were Sens. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire and Mel Martinez of Florida.

The Senate scheduled a vote for 3 p.m. today.

The three Republicans are among a handful of defectors in what has become a charged partisan conflict over the role of judges and the direction of the high court.

Because Democrats command a large majority in the Senate, the outcome of the vote on Sotomayor holds little suspense. But from the White House's standpoint, more Republican votes in her favor will bolster Obama's contention that she is a "mainstream" judge who enjoys bipartisan support.

L. Marvin Overby, a political scientist at the University of Missouri at Columbia, said Bond and the other soon-to-be-retired senators don't "have to curry favor with interests on the far right who are opposing Sotomayor."

Bond used the opportunity Wednesday to implore his colleagues to return to a more civilized approach to judicial nominations. The country, Bond said, "is tired of partisanship infecting every debate. The country is tired of every action by the Congress becoming a political battle."

Earlier in the day, Martinez said he believed Sotomayor would "rule with restraint." And he dismissed the furor over her "wise Latina" remark -- saying that the New York federal appellate judge's opinions were what mattered most, "not what she said to a group of students one day."

Sotomayor has been criticized by some Republicans for a 2001 speech at UC Berkeley in which she said she hoped a "wise Latina" judge would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male.

Martinez's view was disputed by one of his Republican colleagues from Arizona.

"The clear and unmistakable inference in her speeches is that she embraces the fact that minorities and women will reach a different outcome -- indeed, a better outcome," Sen. Jon Kyl said.

Martinez, a Cuban American, charged that some Republicans were using Sotomayor's speeches as "an excuse" not to vote for her confirmation. Her critics, he said, "have yet to produce objective evidence that she has allowed personal bias to influence her judicial decision-making."

Bond offered a less-spirited defense of Sotomayor, saying she "has proven herself a well-qualified jurist." He made it clear that his vote was an expression of his belief that "elections have consequences" and that the victorious party should be allowed some leeway in choosing its nominees.

"If some are saying that a Democratic president should not have a liberal justice, does that mean a Republican president should not have conservative justices?" he asked. "That is not something I could support."

Bond also pointed out that when Obama was a senator, he apparently saw differences in ideology as grounds for opposing judicial nominees. Obama voted against the confirmations of President George W. Bush's nominees, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.

"Luckily for President Obama, I do not agree with Sen. Obama," Bond said. "I reject the Obama approach to nominees."

Unlike Bond and Sens. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina -- who have been willing to show a certain deference to the executive branch -- many Republicans have sought to use Sotomayor's nomination as a platform to outline GOP positions on gun rights, property rights and other hot-button issues.

James Knowles, state chairman of the Missouri Federation of Young Republicans, said he was not surprised by Bond's support for Sotomayor because the senator "has always been somebody who tries to be above the politics."

Bond's home state is changing too. During the last election, Missouri supported Republican challenger John McCain over Obama by a narrow margin.

Overby said Bond may be "cognizant of the rapid growth of the Hispanic population in Missouri . . . and has a better grasp than some of his colleagues what this entails for the GOP future."

--

joliphant@latimes.com

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