WASHINGTON — The Senate pressed toward a history-making vote to confirm Sonia Sotomayor as the Supreme Court's first Hispanic justice Thursday, elevating the daughter of Puerto Rican parents after a summer-long debate filled with ethnic politics. She would be the first justice nominated by a Democratic president in a decade and a half.
The Democrats' heavy majority ensured confirmation of President Barack Obama's first nominee, though many Republican senators were voting against her. GOP senators typically praised her personal story but said they were concerned that she would be too liberal and would rely on personal sympathies rather than legal precedents in her votes on the nation's highest court.
The Senate's deep divisions over Sotomayor reflected partisan politics but also profound philosophical disagreements that will shape future battles over the court's makeup as Obama looks to another likely vacancy – perhaps more than one_ while he's in the White House.
Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., 91, the longest-serving senator, who has been in frail health, planned to make just his second return to the Senate since his release from the hospital in June to cast a historic vote for Sotomayor.
Democrats, who described the judge as a mainstream moderate, hailed the vote as a breakthrough achievement for the country on par with enactment of civil rights laws. They warned Republicans they risked having history pass them by in opposing Sotomayor's confirmation.
"Judge Sotomayor should not be chosen to serve on the court because of her Hispanic heritage, but those who oppose her for fear of her unique life experience do no justice to her or our nation. Their names will be listed in our nation's annals of elected officials one step behind America's historic march forward," said Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat.
Republicans argued Sotomayor would bring liberal bias and personal sympathies to her decisions, contending that background and experience should have no place in a judge's deliberations. They chose their words carefully, cognizant of the delicate task of opposing Sotomayor without seeming to denigrate her achievements or heritage.
"I hope that she actively defends her impartiality against subjective influences such as personal sympathies and prejudices. I hope that she sees the Constitution – both the words and its meaning – as something that she must follow, rather than something that she can change at will. ...(But) the record has not convinced me that she holds those views," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.
Obama named Sotomayor to replace retiring Justice David Souter, a liberal named by a Republican president, and she's not expected to alter the court's ideological balance. The court has turned increasingly conservative with recent Republican appointments. The last Democratic nomination was Stephen Breyer by President Bill Clinton in 1994.
Still, GOP senators argued Sotomayor's speeches and record made her unacceptable. They pointed to rulings in which they said she showed disregard for gun rights, property rights and job discrimination claims by white employees. And they repeatedly cited comments she's made about the role that a judge's background and perspective can play, especially a 2001 speech in which she said she hoped a "wise Latina" judge would usually make better decisions than a white man.
Republicans have been particularly critical of Sotomayor's position on the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms. She was part of a federal appeals court panel in New York that ruled this year that the amendment limits only the federal government – not states – a decision in keeping with previous Supreme Court precedent. Gun rights supporters said her panel shouldn't have called the issue "settled law," and they criticized her for refusing during her confirmation hearings to go beyond what the high court has said and declare that the Second Amendment applies to the states.
The National Rifle Association is strongly opposing her and has threatened to downgrade its ratings of any senator who votes to confirm Sotomayor. The warning has made little impact on Democrats, but it may have influenced some Republicans who were initially considered possible supporters but have since announced their opposition, citing gun rights as a key reason.
At least nine Republicans are backing Sotomayor, including the Senate's GOP moderates and its lone Hispanic Republican, retiring Sen. Mel Martinez of Florida, as well as conservative Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the party's third-ranking leader. Most of them say that while they disagree with some of her views and rulings, they believe she's well-qualified.
"Judge Sotomayor's decisions, while not always the decision 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 of Ohio, the last Republican to come out in her favor, just hours before the vote.
"I have confidence that the parties who appear before her will encounter a judge who is committed to recognizing and suppressing any personal bias she may have to reach a decision that is dictated by the rule of law," he said.