Sonia Sotomayor One Step Closer to Confirmation Vote

Panel sends Supreme Court nomination to full Senate for consideration.

July 28, 2009, 9:35 AM

July 28, 2009 — -- Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor is one step closer to confirmation today, as the Senate Judiciary Committee voted today to send her nomination to the full Senate for consideration.

The vote fell largely along party lines, with 12 Democrats voting in favor of the move and six Republicans voting against. One Republican, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, joined the Democrats.

"I gladly give her my vote because I think she meets the qualifications test that was used in [Justices] Scalia and Ginsburg," Graham said today. "And if she, by being a woman on the court, will inspire young women, particularly Latino women to seek a career in the law, that would be a good thing."

The Senate is widely expected to confirm Sotomayor, 55, which would make her the first Hispanic Supreme Court Justice. The vote is expected to be held sometime in August.

Graham today said the discussions about the president's so-called empathy standard -- President Obamahas called the quality an "essential ingredient for arriving at just decisions and outcomes" -- "makes us all kind of Dr. Phils," a reference to the TV psychologist.

"I feel uncomfortable doing that. I really do. So I base my vote on qualifications, and I came away after the hearing believing that she was well-qualified," he said.

Graham called Sotomayor "competent, not just qualified" and "left of center, but certainly within the mainstream."

"What she will do as a judge, I think, will be based on what she thinks is right, and that's not me saying that or hoping that. That's based on a 12-year record, where I haven't seen this activism that we all dread, and should reject," Graham added.

Conservatives ramped up their criticism of Sotomayor after her confirmation hearings earlier this month, saying she failed to alleviate their concerns over hot-button issues such as abortion rights and gun control, or explain controversial past comments that a "wise Latina woman" might reach a better conclusion in some cases than a white man.

Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the top Republican on the panel, voted against Sotomayor, one day after laying out his argument against her in a Monday opinion column published in USA Today.

Both today and in the article, Sessions pointed to Sotomayor's past rulings, including a divisive discrimination case filed by a group of white and Hispanic firefighters in New Haven, Conn.

Sessions Questions Sotomayor Judicial Philosophy

As an appeals judge, Sotomayor ruled against the firefighters, a decision the Supreme Court voted along ideological lines to overturn last month. Now retired Justice David Souter, whose vacancy Sotomayor will fill if confirmed, voted to uphold the earlier rulings.

That ruling and others Sessions cited "have three things in common," Sessions wrote in USA Today. "Each was contrary to the Constitution. Each was decided in a brief opinion, short on analysis. And each was consistent with liberal political thought."

Sessions today commended Sotomayor for her grace and patience during her confirmation hearings, but said that "based on her record as a judge and her statements I am not able to support this nomination. I don't believe anyone should be on any court of the United States that is not deeply committed to the ideal of American justice, and that is, that they should set aside their personal opinions and biases when they rule from the court."

"But in speech after speech, year after year, Judge Sotomayor set forth a fully formed, I believe, judicial philosophy."

At the beginning of the hearing, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., countered Sessions' reasoning, calling Sotomayor a "restrained, fair and impartial judge who applies the law to the facts to decide cases."

"Ironically, the few decisions for which she's been criticized for are cases which she did not, did not reach out to change the law… In other words, cases in which she refused to be an activist judge and make law from the bench," Leahy said, a nod to the cases Sessions and other conservatives have cited.

"In her 17 years on the bench, there is not one example of, let alone a pattern, of her ruling based on bias or prejudice or sympathy," Leahy added. "She has been true to her oath. She has faithfully and partially performed her duties as set forth by the constitution."

Schumer, Democrats Defend Sotomayor

Sessions also charged that Sotomayor's testimony was "not consistent" with "repeated phrases and statements" she has made in the past, such as her "wise Latina woman" remark.

Her testimony, Sessions said, "did not have the clarity and the compelling nature that would overcome those speeches."

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, agreed, saying that Sotomayor's testimony left him "with more questions than answers" and said he's not convinced that she would be able to put on the "judicial blindfold."

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., called it "unfair" for critics to boil Sotomayor's career down to the three words "wise Latina woman," and other Democrats cited her experiences -- both in her career and in her personal life -- in their defenses of her.

Sotomayor, the daughter of Puerto Rican parents, grew up in Bronx housing projects before ascending to Princeton and Yale. She worked as a prosecutor and in private practice before President George H.W. Bush first nominated her to the federal bench in 1991, and in 1997 President Clinton tapped her as a federal appeals judge.

Sessions and his fellow Republicans praised Sotomayor for her accomplishments, but also cited concerns about how she would interpret the Second Amendment and other issues if confirmed.

The powerful National Rifle Association has vocally opposed Sotomayor and made it known last week that senators' votes on Sotomayor will be factored into future candidate evaluations compiled by the organization. The Washington Post noted in an editorial that the NRA is making that move for the first time in its 138-year history.

Anti-abortion rights groups have also spoken out against the nominee; Americans United for Life president and CEO Dr. Charmaine Yoest expressed deep concern about Sotomayor's views when she testified at her confirmation hearings.

ABC News' Caitlin Taylor and Devin Dwyer contributed to this report.

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