WASHINGTON - Pushing toward a historic Supreme Court confirmation vote, the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday approved Judge Sonia Sotomayor to be the first Hispanic justice, over nearly solid Republican opposition.
The panel's 13-6 vote for Sotomayor masked deep political divisions within GOP ranks about confirming President Barack Obama's first high court nominee. Just one Republican, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, joined Democrats to support her, although four others have said they'll vote for Sotomayor when her nomination comes before the full Senate next week - and that number is expected to grow.
"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," Graham said. Obama's choice to nominate the first-ever Latina to the highest court is "a big deal," he added, declaring that, "America has changed for the better with her selection."
The near-unanimous Republican vote against Sotomayor on the Judiciary panel reflected the choice many GOP conservatives have made to side with their core supporters and oppose a judge they charge will bring liberal bias and racial and gender prejudices to her decisions. Others in the party, however, are concerned that doing so could hurt their efforts to broaden their base, and particularly alienate Hispanic voters, a fast-growing segment of the electorate.
Hispanic and civil rights groups hailed the Judiciary Committee's action as a turning point in the march toward embracing diversity and racial equality in the United States.
Wade Henderson of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights called it "a significant milestone in our country's journey toward providing equal justice under the law."
Several strategists on both sides who have been closely tracking the nomination said as many as five more Republicans could join the five who have already announced their intention to vote for Sotomayor. They spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid publicly predicting the outcome.
Conservative activists are pressing for the GOP to keep up a united front against Sotomayor, whatever the political consequences. "Republican senators on the Judiciary Committee deserve praise for putting principle above identity politics today in voting against Sonia Sotomayor," said Curt Levey of the conservative Committee for Justice.
Hours after the panel's vote, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, announced she too would oppose Sotomayor, citing the nominee's views on the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms. The vote had posed a particularly sticky dilemma for Hutchison, who is seeking her party's 2010 nomination for governor in Texas, where the population is more than one-third Latino.
Democrats, for their part, are lining up solidly in favor of the 55-year-old federal appeals court judge, the daughter of Puerto Rican parents who was raised in a South Bronx housing project and educated in the Ivy League.
"There's not one example - let alone a pattern - of her ruling based on bias or prejudice or sympathy," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the Judiciary Committee chairman. "She has administered justice without favoring one group of persons over another."
The senior Republican, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, countered that Sotomayor's speeches and a few of her rulings show she would let her opinions interfere in decisions.
"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 as written," Sessions said.
Sotomayor is not expected to tip the court's ideological balance, since she's replacing Justice David Souter, a liberal nominated by a Republican president. "She can be no worse than Souter from our point of view," Graham remarked.
Still, Republicans pointed with particular concern to Sotomayor's record on gun and property rights, as well as a much-discussed rejection by her appeals court panel of the reverse discrimination claims of white firefighters denied promotions. And every GOP senator who spoke alluded critically to the now-infamous remark Sotomayor made in 2001 that she hoped a "wise Latina woman" would often reach better conclusions than a white male without similar experiences.
Sotomayor dismissed the comments during her confirmation hearings as a rhetorical flourish gone awry, a defense that rang hollow with many of her critics.
"I can't vote for her because she wouldn't defend what she said, and stand up and say, 'I really believe this, but I can still be a great judge anyway, because I will never let that interfere with my judging,' " said Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.
The debate over Sotomayor's fitness for the court is as much about Obama - who will likely have at least one more chance to fill a Supreme Court vacancy - as it is about the judge herself.
Democrats said Sotomayor's background and her willingness to acknowledge how it might influence how she sees cases was an asset.
"She knows the law, she knows the Constitution, but she knows America, too," said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.
Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, a Republican recently turned Democrat, said Sotomayor's much-maligned comment reflected a woman standing up for women and someone exhibiting ethnic pride. "I didn't find fault with 'wise Latina woman,' I found it commendable," he said.
Even though they never stood a chance of defeating Sotomayor, her Republican opponents said they gained ground during the confirmation process by getting Democrats to agree that judges should above all be faithful to the law - an idea they said counters Obama's stated view that a justice should have "empathy."
"We agreed that judges should be impartial and not pick winners and losers based on some subjective empathy standard or whatever is in the judge's heart," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. "We've defined where the judicial mainstream is ... and we've set expectations, I believe, for future nominees."
Associated Press writers Ann Sanner and Suzanne Gamboa contributed to this report.
Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.