Sotomayor vote sets a partisan tone

Republicans’ unflinching opposition Tuesday to Judge Sonia Sotomayor drew a partisan line in the sand, signaling that any future Obama nominees to the Supreme Court are unlikely to win significant GOP support even if they have solid legal credentials and moderate records.

By a 13-6 vote, the Democrats and a lone Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee sent her nomination to the full Senate, where she is expected to easily win confirmation next week because of the significant Democratic majority.

The vote reinforced how the nomination process has become a test of party solidarity, with senators wary of voting to confirm a nominee of the president of the opposite party.

Three years ago, all of the Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee opposed President Bush’s choice of Samuel A. Alito Jr. for the high court, even though he, like Sotomayor, had a long and solid record as a judge.


Democrats portrayed Sotomayor as a cautious jurist who would closely follow the law. But most Republicans on the panel -- who will probably be followed by a large number of their colleagues in the Senate -- seemed ready to risk alienating Latino voters to make their point that she is more of a legal activist than her record as an appellate judge reveals.

They said that they had succeeded in setting a new, conservative standard for judging.

“This confirmation process has, in many ways, been a repudiation of activist legal thought,” said Alabama’s Sen. Jeff Sessions, the committee’s ranking Republican. “It will now be harder to nominate activist judges.”

Six of the seven Republicans on the panel -- all but South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham -- voted against confirming the woman who would be the first Latino on the high court. They included Sens. John Cornyn of Texas and Jon Kyl of Arizona, whose states have large Latino populations.

Some GOP senators initially seemed open to supporting Sotomayor, but in recent weeks, advocates of gun rights and opponents of abortion have pressed them to vote no on her.

The Republicans have also presented a solid front in opposing President Obama on issues including the economic stimulus package and overhauling the healthcare system.

“The Republicans were more nervous about giving Obama a big victory than in further eroding their diminished support among Hispanics,” said Donald F. Kettl, dean of the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy. “The Sotomayor vote signals that [Obama] needs to be very, very careful about going any further left with the next nominee.”

Brian Darling, director of Senate relations for the conservative Heritage Foundation, said the GOP vote showed that “Republicans are willing to put up a fight on the nominations.”

“The big question is what’s going to happen in the future,” Darling said. “Are Republicans going to band together and fight harder if it’s perceived as a conservative seat being vacated” the next time?

“I think this is going to force the president to be more cautious in his next nomination,” he added.

From the liberal side, Nan Aron of Alliance for Justice said that the Republican attitude should actually free Obama to pick a more liberal nominee next time: “This is a clear sign that the Republicans will not support anyone he sends up. He has nothing to lose by choosing a progressive.”

Some Latino leaders said the Republicans could pay a political price for their vote.

“The lack of GOP support is profoundly unfortunate,” said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. “I believe Latino voters have developed quite a sophistication over the years, and they take note of who is supportive of their causes and community, and who is not.”

Graham, the lone Republican to break ranks with his party, said Sotomayor deserved to be confirmed because she had been a good judge.

He also praised Obama for choosing a Latina to serve on the court.

“America has changed for the better with her selection,” he said.

Sotomayor would become the first justice named by a Democratic president in 15 years.

Her ascension would also mark the first time in 34 years that the nine-member high court has had more than two Democratic appointees.

Republican presidents have filled 12 of the 14 openings on the Supreme Court since 1968. Based on the ages of the justices, Sotomayor is the first of what could be three or more appointments from Obama.