Making history by breaking another color barrier, the Senate on Thursday voted to confirm Sonia Sotomayor as the nation’s first Hispanic, third woman and 111th justice in the history of the U.S. Supreme Court.
With the viewing galleries packed and senators voting from their seats - a rare event, in recognition of the gravity of the vote - the Senate confirmed Judge Sotomayor by a vote of 68-31. After the vote tally was announced, Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Democrat, gleefully grabbed the arm of fellow Sen. Patty Murray, Washington Democrat, while Sen. Charles E. Schumer clasped hands with Rep. Jose E. Serrano, a fellow New York Democrat who was in the chamber to watch the vote.
“With this historic vote, the Senate has affirmed that Judge Sotomayor has the intellect, the temperament, the history, the integrity and the independence of mind to ably serve on our nation’s highest court,” President Obama said at the White House after the vote.
Once she is sworn in Saturday, Judge Sotomayor, who is of Puerto Rican descent, will replace retiring Justice David H. Souter. She is unlikely to alter radically the ideological makeup of the nine-member court, but she will make it the most diverse panel in its history.
Hispanic groups hailed the victory as a milestone. Conservative groups said they hope the judge keeps the promises she made during her confirmation hearings to apply the law evenhandedly.
The 55-year-old judge watched the vote on television from a conference room at the federal court building in New York.
Judge Sotomayor received more Senate votes in favor than the 58 garnered by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. in 2006, but fewer than the 78 votes Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. won in 2005. Both men were nominated by President George W. Bush.
Mr. Obama said he was happy with the total for Judge Sotomayor.
Sen. Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia Democrat, and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, Maryland Democrat, were wheeled in on wheelchairs to vote. Only ailing Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, was absent. Nine Republicans joined the Democrats and two independents in support. Thirty-one Republicans opposed her.
“This is a great day, a great American story, and I’m glad that she was approved by more than two to one,” Mr. Schumer said afterward. “That will say something about the best of America.”
Judge Sotomayor brings nearly two decades of experience as a judge, first as a federal district judge and then more than a decade as an appeals court judge.
That long history was both her best asset and one of her biggest liabilities, along with her voluminous record of speeches.
She was the first nominee to really face scrutiny in the YouTube era, and video clips of her seeming to say appeals courts are where “policy is made” became an issue.
Republicans who voted against her said her rulings on gun and property rights and discrimination worried them, as did her writings on abortion, the death penalty and the role of a judge.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, painted a picture of what he called “Judge Sotomayor’s Court” where, he said, only certain groups got justice. He said others, such as the white New Haven, Conn., firefighters she ruled against in a discrimination case “didn’t make the cut” on her list of favored groups.
During her confirmation hearing, Judge Sotomayor distanced herself from some of her writings, saying her record on the federal bench showed she was an impartial judge. Democratic senators said she will strike the right balance.
“We don’t have to guess what kind of judge she’ll be; she’s had more experience on the federal courts … than any nominee in decades,” said Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat. “This is an extraordinary nominee.”
Her confirmation was the latest installment of what has become among the most rancorous battles - yet for nearly two decades, or since Justice Clarence Thomas’ nomination, the presidents’ choices have been approved fairly easily.
Despite failing to block Judge Sotomayor, conservative Republicans said they had achieved a victory for the future by securing her fealty to interpreting rather than making law from the bench.
“It will now be harder, I think, to nominate activist judges,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions, the Alabama Republican who took over as top Republican on the Judiciary Committee just as the court vacancy was created.
But Republican opposition could come with a price. Hispanic voters, many of whom have been reluctant to support Republicans, could view the opposition as a vote against them.
“I think that message is one that will be seriously viewed in the days ahead by the community,” said Sen. Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat.
He said Judge Sotomayor’s nomination united Hispanics from all backgrounds.
This was the third confirmation for Judge Sotomayor, who was unanimously confirmed to the federal trial court and was elevated to the appeals court in 1998 on a 67-29 vote - almost the same tally as Thursday’s confirmation vote.
She will be sworn in by Chief Justice Roberts on Saturday in a private ceremony; there will be an official installation ceremony in September when the full court returns.