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.
Before becoming a judge, she served on a New York board that strictly enforced the city’s campaign finance laws, but she will be joining a court whose conservative justices are skeptical of limiting the role of money in politics.
And unlike any current justice, she has both tried cases as a prosecutor and presided over trials as a judge. Friends say those experiences shaped her view of the law and judging, giving her an up-close look at how the criminal justice system works. By contrast, most of the justices have spent their careers as law professors, government lawyers and appellate judges, all at least one step removed from trials.
“She is intensely focused on the facts, not the ideology,” said Los Angeles lawyer Nancy Gray, who worked with Sotomayor as a prosecutor in New York. “In the criminal system, you often see the worst in people, the damage that crime does to victims and their families, and the revolving door of people coming through the system. She is acutely aware of all that.”
The effects of Sotomayor’s ethnicity and gender -- she will become the second woman on the court, the third ever -- may not be obvious in her decisions, many lawyers say, but could influence her fellow justices.
After Justice Thurgood Marshall retired, several justices, including Sandra Day O’Connor and Byron R. White, wrote that the first African American justice had a powerful influence through the stories he told in their private conferences. As a young lawyer, he traveled throughout the South to represent black defendants who often faced a white prosecutor, a white judge and an all-white jury. If his white colleagues had not thought much about how race could infect the criminal justice system, Marshall made sure they understood.
Sotomayor’s first major case, due to be heard Sept. 9, will decide the constitutionality of part of the McCain-Feingold Act that forbids the broadcast of corporate-funded campaign ads.
This week, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), cosponsor of the law, voted against Sotomayor because, he said, she was not a “believer in judicial restraint.”
But the newly confirmed justice is more likely to uphold his campaign-finance measure than her more conservative colleagues whom McCain supported, including Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito.
During the vote, the newest senator, Al Franken (D-Minn.), was given the honor of presiding over the chamber. As he did so, an ailing Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va) arrived unexpectedly to boost the tally for Sotomayor by one more vote.
As the final vote was announced, Rep. Jose E. Serrano of the Bronx, a Democrat who represents the district where Sotomayor was born, embraced Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) on the Senate floor.
Saturday, for the first time at the court, cameras will be allowed to record the moment a new Supreme Court justice takes the oath of office.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Age: 55; born June 25, 1954, in New York City
Experience: Judge, U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, 1998-present; judge, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, 1992-98; private practice, New York, 1984-92; assistant district attorney, New York County, 1979-84
Education: Bachelor of arts, Princeton University, 1976; graduated from Yale Law School, 1979
Family: Divorced, no children
Quote: “I don’t believe we should bend the Constitution under any circumstance. It says what it says. We should do honor to it.”
Source: Associated Press