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Panel vote on Sotomayor likely to reflect divide

Obama's Supreme Court pick is expected be approved by a Senate committee on a near-party line vote. Lawmakers once showed deference to presidents' choices, but now 'it's a new ballgame,' says one.

July 28, 2009|David G. Savage

WASHINGTON — Judge Sonia Sotomayor, President Obama's first Supreme Court nominee, is expected to win approval today in a near-party line vote of the Senate Judiciary Committee, reflecting the divide over judicial nominees that has taken hold in recent years.

All 12 Democrats on the panel have voiced support for the New York judge, while all but one of the seven Republicans have indicated they would oppose her despite her strong qualifications.

The lineup signals Sotomayor will win confirmation in the Senate by a comfortable margin and become the first Latino justice, but she will do so without much Republican support. The full Senate is expected to take up her nomination next week.

The lone exception to the party-line vote of the Judiciary Committee figures to be Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican. Last week, he said he would vote to confirm Sotomayor even though he believed her record was "left of center."

"Elections have consequences," Graham said, insisting the president's well-qualified court nominees deserve to be confirmed. He noted, however, that then-Sen. Barack Obama and most of his Democratic colleagues did not follow that principle with President George W. Bush's two Supreme Court nominees. "I chose not to use Sen. Obama's standard," Graham said, saying he preferred the tradition of deference to a president's choices.

In 2006, when Republicans held a slim majority, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.'s nomination was passed out of the Judiciary Committee on a 10-8 vote. He was confirmed by the Senate on a 58-42 vote, with only four Democrats in favor.

In 2005, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. had won a 13-5 vote from the committee, with three of eight Democrats supporting him. He was confirmed in the Senate by a 78-22 margin, with half the Democrats voting for him and half against. Obama voted against Roberts and Alito.

Two veteran Republicans -- Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa and Orrin G. Hatch of Utah -- said their votes against Sotomayor would be their first "no" votes on a Supreme Court nominee, and they pointed to changed standards in the Senate.

"I think it's a whole new ballgame, a lot different than I approached it with [Justice Ruth Bader] Ginsburg and [Justice Stephen G.] Breyer," Grassley said in an interview. He was referring to President Clinton's two Supreme Court picks who were confirmed by 96-3 and 87-9 margins, respectively.

As expected, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the panel's ranking Republican, announced he would vote against Sotomayor. He was her sharpest questioner during her confirmation hearings. Despite Sotomayor's pledge to closely follow the law, Sessions said, he believed she would not "resist the siren call of judicial activism."

The National Rifle Assn. and the anti-abortion group Americans United for Life have urged senators to vote "no" on Sotomayor.

Prior to this decade, Supreme Court justices who won confirmation usually had the backing of most of the Senate. Justices John Paul Stevens, Antonin Scalia and Anthony M. Kennedy all won confirmation by unanimous votes. Sotomayor would replace retired Justice David H. Souter, who was confirmed by a 90-9 vote in 1990.

The one notable exception among the veteran members of the high court was Justice Clarence Thomas, who was confirmed by a 52-48 vote in 1991.

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david.savage@latimes.com

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