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Senate vote on Sotomayor scheduled for this afternoon

The Supreme Court nominee appears on track to receive as many as 67 votes. Republicans use the debate to complain about the treatment of Miguel Estrada, a Bush judicial nominee rejected in 2003.

August 07, 2009|David G. Savage and James Oliphant

WASHINGTON — The historic confirmation Thursday of Judge Sonia Sotomayor as the nation's newest justice will bring new perspectives to the Supreme Court, and not just because she will be its first Latino.

After three days of debate, the Senate voted 68 to 31 in her favor, with nine Republicans crossing party lines to support her.

During the debate and confirmation hearings, her experience as a Latina seemed to overshadow discussions about her qualifications. But her background will probably affect her thinking and influence her decisions in ways that were hardly mentioned in the Senate fight.

After she is sworn into office Saturday, she will be the only justice whose first language is not English. She has had diabetes since childhood -- a medical condition classified as a disability under federal law. She was raised in a Bronx housing project where drugs were more common than Ivy League college success. And the 111th justice is a divorced woman with no children.

Sotomayor, the 55-year-old daughter of Puerto Rican parents, watched the vote in a conference room at the federal courthouse in Manhattan where she served as an appellate judge. Other judges and court workers celebrated with Sotomayor, who took a call from her mother after the vote was completed.

"Mommy, I have people here," she said, before conversing briefly in Spanish. When she left the courthouse, she declined to answer questions from reporters, saying: "I'm going to be with my friends."

More Republicans than expected voted for Sotomayor, given the partisan nature of recent Supreme Court confirmation hearings.

"Sixty-eight votes is a victory for the White House," said John Geer, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University. "If the Obama administration got that kind of support for healthcare, they would be dancing down Pennsylvania Avenue."

President Obama praised the result. "With this historic vote, the Senate has affirmed that Judge Sotomayor has the intellect, the temperament, the history, the integrity and the independence of mind to ably serve on our nation's highest court," he said.

But Sotomayor's rejection of Obama's assertion that empathy is a crucial qualification for the court had Republicans claiming victory too Thursday, saying it would be harder now for the president to nominate a liberal jurist if there is another court vacancy.

"By the end of the hearing, not only Republicans, not only Democrats, but the nominee herself ended up rejecting the very empathy standard the president used when selecting her," Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said Thursday.

Sessions, who voted against Sotomayor, said: "This process reflected a broad public consensus that judges should be impartial, restrained, and faithfully tethered to the law and the Constitution. It will now be harder to nominate activist judges."

Although the confirmation hearings focused on whether she would be an activist on the high court, the many ways in which she will be an unusual member of the elite judicial fraternity were largely overlooked.

Sotomayor refers to herself proudly as an "affirmative-action baby," having been admitted to Princeton University with less than stellar SAT scores, but who nonetheless graduated with the highest honors.

She will "change the conversation on affirmative action" within the court, said University of Maryland law professor Sherrilyn Ifill. The only other minority on the court, Justice Clarence Thomas, is a staunch foe of affirmative action; he maintains that such policies taint the accomplishments of all minorities.

"Her story of how hard she worked to graduate first in her class from Princeton makes her really the poster child for the benefits of affirmative action," Ifill said.

Her diabetes and daily insulin shots it requires were not much discussed during the hearings, but that experience is bound to influence her views, some lawyers say.

"She may be a strong voice for access to healthcare," said Sylvia Lazos, a law professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. "She will be a real player in the debates over what is a disability."

Advocates for those with disabilities have suffered some big defeats in the court in the last decade, and they have high hopes for Sotomayor. "We're very excited. We don't feel we have had a champion on the current court," said Andrew Imparato, president of the American Assn. of People with Disabilities.

And her status as a single woman could, some expect, have a bearing how she looks at nontraditional families. The court is expected to face a series of cases soon involving the legal rights of families of gay and lesbian couples.

Even her personal finances look more like contemporary America's compared with those of the wealthier colleagues she'll join on the Supreme Court. Friends say that Sotomayor has struggled to pay her mortgage and her credit card bills, and her financial disclosures show that she has no substantial savings or stock portfolio.

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