Reporting from Washington — Sonia Sotomayor completed an unlikely and historic journey today, one that began with her birth in a Bronx, New York, housing project 55 years ago and culminated in her confirmation as the Supreme Court’s 111th justice.
When she is sworn into office, Sotomayor will take her place as the high court’s first Latino and just its third woman. She was approved by a 68-31 Senate vote after three days of debate. Nine Republicans crossed party lines to support her.
Sotomayor was nominated in May by President Obama to replace retiring Justice David H. Souter. A judge on the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals for the last 11 years, Sotomayor worked her way through two Ivy League schools and was a Manhattan prosecutor and corporate lawyer before joining the federal bench.
But the pride felt by Latino groups over her historic nomination quickly gave way to a firestorm, as critics seized upon a speech Sotomayor gave to a group of students in 2001. Sotomayor suggested that her life experience as a Latina shaped her judging, and her remarks became known, almost notoriously, as the “wise Latina” speech.
Sotomayor’s opponents charged that the speech and some of her decisions on the bench showed an inclination to use the law to favor disadvantaged minority groups. And they pointed to one case in particular — in which Sotomayor’s appellate court panel threw out a discrimination suit brought by white firefighters in New Haven, Conn. — as evidence of their claim.
But the controversy never appeared to seriously threaten her nomination.
With Democrats in control of the Senate, there was little possibility of a Republican-led filibuster. And Sotomayor’s supporters pointed to thousands of opinions in her long judicial career, few if any of which showed the sort of liberal leaning that her detractors alleged existed.
Over three long days of confirmation hearings, Sotomayor pledged “fidelity to the law” and rejected the “empathy standard” that Obama invoked when the Supreme Court vacancy arose. The president had said that justices need to sometimes utilize empathy to understand the effect the court’s decisions have on the lives of ordinary Americans. But Sotomayor broke with Obama over that notion, a moment her conservative critics said was particularly significant.
Still, most Republicans weren’t mollified — and during this week’s debate, they said they doubted Sotomayor’s ability to remain impartial on the bench.
“This is a question of the true role of the judge. It is a question of whether a judge follows the law as it is written or how they wish it should be,” Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said shortly before today’s vote.
But Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the committee, which oversaw Sotomayor’s nomination, said on the Senate floor that the judge had answered her critics and proved her suitability for the court. He called on Republicans to support the nominee to honor “our national promise.”
“Judge Sotomayor’s career and judicial record demonstrates that she has always followed the rule of law,” Leahy said. “Attempts at distorting that record by suggesting that her ethnicity or heritage will be the driving force in her decisions as a justice of the Supreme Court are demeaning to women and all communities of color.”