Senate Panel OKs Sotomayor Nomination

The Senate Judiciary committee voted 13-6 Tuesday to approve Judge Sonia Sotomayor for the Supreme Court. All the Democrats on the committee voted for her along with one Republican, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Madeleine Brand in California.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel in Washington, where the Senate Judiciary Committee today voted to approve the nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor. If confirmed, she would be the first Hispanic member of the U.S. Supreme Court. The committee vote was 13 to 6, with all Republicans but one voting against.

NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg was there. And she has this report.

NINA TOTENBERG: With Sotomayor's legal qualifications unassailable and only 3 out of 3,000 cases she ruled in provoking any real controversy, Republicans again focused on her now-famous line in five speeches, that she would hope a wise Latino woman with the richness of her experience would reach a better conclusion than a white male judge in some cases.

It was a statement that Sotomayor at her confirmation hearing repeatedly said was a failed rhetorical flourish, a statement she said was not meant to imply any gender or ethnic preference. But Republicans didn't seem to believe her. Here's the committee's senior Republican, Alabama's Jeff Sessions.

Senator JEFF SESSIONS (Republican, Alabama): In speech after speech, year after year, Judge Sotomayor set forth a fully formed, I believe, judicial philosophy that conflicts with the great American tradition of blind justice and fidelity to the law.

TOTENBERG: And here's Texas Republican John Cornyn.

Senator JOHN CORNYN (Republican, Texas): Because I have no confidence which Judge Sonia Sotomayor we will see on the Supreme Court, I will vote against the nomination. The stakes are simply too high to vote to confirm someone who could redefine the law of the land from the bench.

TOTENBERG: But Democrat Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota said Republicans were deliberately focusing on one line in a few speeches, while ignoring Sotomayor's 17-year record as a trial and appeals court judge.

Senator AMY KLOBUCHAR (Democrat, Minnesota): You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts. And in this case, the facts are her judicial record.

TOTENBERG: Senator Lindsey Graham, the only Republican to cast his vote for Sotomayor, readily acknowledged that he didn't like Sotomayor's speeches.

Senator LINDSEY GRAHAM (Republican, South Carolina): The speeches did bug the hell out of me, not because I disagree with what she was saying, she was a judge at the time she was giving the speeches. And she embraced some concepts that just really were unnerving. But you know what? How many of my speeches would unnerve people on the other side?

TOTENBERG: The speeches, he said, have to put in context and weighed against her stellar record as a judge.

Sen. GRAHAM: I leave believing that she is well qualified, of good character and her record over a long period of time is within the mainstream.

TOTENBERG: Finally, Graham said he wanted to mark an important fact in a country where women were not allowed to vote until 1920, and where no Hispanic has ever served on the nation's highest court.

Sen. GRAHAM: This is the first Latino woman in the history of the United States to be selected for the Supreme Court. Now, that is a big deal. I would not have chosen her, but I understand why President Obama did. I gladly give her my vote because I think she meets the qualifications test that was used in Scalia and Ginsburg. And if she, by being on the Court, will inspire young women, particularly Latino women, to seek a career in the law, that would be a good thing. America has changed for the better with her selection.

TOTENBERG: Democrats and Republicans seem to agree on one thing: They don't much like the way confirmation hearings have evolved over time with the nominee simply refusing to answer most substantive questions. Indeed, Sotomayor slavishly followed the script that was used by Bush nominees John Roberts and Samuel Alito, even adopting their verbal formulations. And several Democrats, like Wisconsin's Russell Feingold, said today, they're unhappy about that script.

Senator RUSSELL FEINGOLD (Democrat, Wisconsin): I remained unconvinced that the dodge that all nominees now use: I can't answer that question because the issue might come before me on the Court, is justified. These hearings have become little more than theater, where senators try to ask clever questions and nominees try to come up with clever ways to respond without answering.

TOTENBERG: Senators conceded, though, there's little likelihood that any nominee in the future will risk deviating from the dodge. The Sotomayor nomination now goes to the Senate floor, where she's expected to be easily confirmed next week with all Democrats likely to vote for her, but only a handful of Republicans.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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Senate Panel Backs Sotomayor Nomination

Sonia Sotomayor i i

The 13-6 Senate Judiciary Committee vote split almost entirely along party lines. Every panel Democrat backed Sotomayor's nomination, but Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina was the only Republican to vote in favor of Sotomayor (above). Charles Dharapak/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Charles Dharapak/AP
Sonia Sotomayor

The 13-6 Senate Judiciary Committee vote split almost entirely along party lines. Every panel Democrat backed Sotomayor's nomination, but Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina was the only Republican to vote in favor of Sotomayor (above).

Charles Dharapak/AP

The Lone Republican

Sen. Lindsey Graham's remarks before the Senate Judiciary Committee vote

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted Tuesday to send Judge Sonya Sotomayor's Supreme Court nomination to the full Senate, moving her one step closer to becoming the first Hispanic on the highest court in the land.

The 13-6 vote was mostly along party lines. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina was the lone Republican to support Sotomayor, voting with all 12 Democrats to push President Obama's first Supreme Court nominee forward.

The full Senate is expected to vote on Sotomayor's nomination next week, and confirmation is virtually certain.

In comments before the vote, Graham said, "I'm deciding to vote for a woman I would not have chosen." He added that Obama's choice to nominate the first-ever Latina to the highest court is "a big deal," declaring that "America has changed for the better with her selection."

Graham noted that Sotomayor would not change the court's ideological balance. If confirmed, she will replace retiring Justice David Souter, a liberal.

Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) said Sotomayor's 17 years as a federal district and appellate judge make her well qualified to serve on the court.

"The president nominated a person with more federal judicial experience than anyone nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court in nearly a hundred years," Leahy said, adding that Sotomayor would be the only justice with experience as a prosecutor. "It's with enthusiasm and hope that I'm going to vote in favor of this historic nomination."

But most committee Republicans questioned Sotomayor's ability to be unbiased, repeatedly criticizing her "wise Latina" comment during a 2001 speech before a law school audience at the University of California, Berkeley.

"I would hope that a wise Latina woman, with the richness of her experiences, would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life," she said in the speech.

The statement became a major issue in confirmation hearings. Sotomayor testified that it was merely rhetoric that fell flat, but Republicans say her words showed racial and gender bias.

Referring to the oft-quoted comment, Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the committee's second-ranking Republican, said he is not convinced that Sotomayor would be able to decide cases impartially.

Grassley said she has repeatedly made such statements. "I had problems harmonizing her answers with the statements that she repeated over and over again throughout the years," he said.

The committee's top Republican, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, said the "wise Latina" comment leads him to believe she will be a judicial activist. He also raised concerns about her stance on gun rights.

As part of an appellate panel, Sotomayor ruled earlier this year that the Second Amendment could not be used to limit state laws restricting weapons possession. The case involved a man named James Maloney of Port Washington, N.Y., who was arrested for possessing a nunchaku martial arts weapon in his home. He contended that the Second Amendment rendered the state law banning nunchakus unconstitutional.

The case, Maloney v. Rice, could come before the Supreme Court.

The National Rifle Association announced last week that it would categorize Sotomayor as "hostile" to the Second Amendment and include lawmakers' votes on her confirmation in its rating of political candidates, which could influence voters in key battleground states.

Throughout the proceedings, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle commended Sotomayor for her accomplishments.

The 55-year-old jurist is the daughter of working-class, Puerto Rican immigrants. She graduated from Yale Law School and went on to have a broad-ranging legal career that included working as an assistant district attorney and in private practice.

Sotomayor is expected to be confirmed by the full Senate next week. Democrats, who hold 60 of the Senate's 100 seats, are solidly behind the president's nominee, and five Republicans — including two of the party's four female senators and Cuban-born Florida Sen. Mel Martinez — have said they'll vote for Sotomayor.

Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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