WASHINGTON (AP) — Republicans cleared the way Thursday for a Senate vote next month to confirm Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, placing her firmly in line to become the first Hispanic justice.
“I look forward to you getting that vote before we recess in August,” said Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, senior Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, not long before Sotomayor concluded four grueling days in the panel’s witness chair.
If confirmed, she would become the first justice appointed by a Democratic president in 15 years, and one lawmaker prodded her to use her skills to challenge the court’s conservative wing in the years ahead.
“It is my hope that … you’ll use some of those characteristics of your litigation experience to battle out the ideas that you believe in,” said Sen. Arlen Specter, a Republican-turned-Democrat.
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• Sotomayor wraps up testimony
While Sotomayor’s confirmation was assured, Republicans on the committee gave her critics a platform, underscoring the racial subtext of her appointment.
Frank Ricci, a New Haven, Conn., firefighter at the center of a reverse-discrimination case, told the panel that “achievement is neither limited nor determined by one’s race but by one’s skills, dedication, commitment and character.”
Ricci, who is white, was denied a promotion when city officials scrapped an exam, concluding that too few minorities had qualified. His challenge was rejected by Sotomayor and two other appeals court judges in a brief order, a ruling the Supreme Court recently overturned.
Sotomayor has said repeatedly that her panel was bound by precedent, an assertion that was challenged in an opinion by fellow appeals Judge Jose Cabranes, her one-time mentor. On Thursday, she sidestepped pointed questions from Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., who demanded to know what precedents she relied on for the decision.
As for a final vote on her confirmation, Sessions said he would not support any attempt to block Senate action and didn’t believe any other Republican would, either.
Sotomayor, 55, has overwhelming if not unanimous support among the Senate’s 60 Democrats.
In an opening statement delivered on Monday, she pledged loyalty to “the impartiality of our justice system,” a script from which she rarely strayed as she sidestepped questions on controversial issues such as abortion and gun rights.
She stepped lightly, too, around President Barack Obama’s statement that he wanted a justice with empathy. And sought to neutralize critics who asked repeatedly about a 2001 speech in which she said the rulings of a wise Latina would often be superior to those of a white male.
For their part, Republicans picked their way carefully through the questioning, a recognition of the racial politics involved. Hispanics are the fastest growing demographic group in the electorate.
Sotomayor drew praise from Republicans and Democrats alike as she was wrapping up her time before the committee at the nationally televised hearing.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. described her judicial record as “generally in the mainstream” and said he thought she would keep an open mind on gun rights. Graham, who has said previously he may vote to confirm Sotomayor, said she was “not an activist.”
Another Republican, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, also called Sotomayor’s rulings “pretty much in the mainstream,” although he said her assertions of impartiality at the hearings were strikingly at odds with her past remarks.
“You appear to be a different person almost in your speeches and in some of the comments that you’ve made” before the Judiciary panel, Cornyn said.
Specter told Sotomayor, “You’ve done quite an outstanding job as witness,” and talked to her as though he were giving a takeaway message to a future justice.
Once she is on the court, he said, he hopes she will use her experience “to battle out the ideas that you believe in.” He also referred to ideological disputes popping up periodically among the justices, a clear reference to conservatives who hold at least four and sometimes a majority of five votes on key rulings.
Specter raised the question of televising the Supreme Court, a cause he has championed for years.
Sotomayor said cameras were allowed in her federal appeals courtroom as part of a pilot study and “my experience has generally been positive.”
Asked if she would encourage the other justices to allow cameras into the high court, she said:
“I would certainly relay my experiences. To the extent some of them may not know about the pilot study in many courts, I would share that with them, although I do suspect they do know, and will participate in discussions with them on this issue. And those things I would do, Senator.”
Justice David Souter has long opposed televising the court’s sessions, but his retirement opened the way for her appointment, and possibly a change in the no-camera rule.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., got a direct one-word answer when he asked Sotomayor if she thought the court’s combined rulings on abortion had ended a national controversy that has flared since 1973.
“No,” she said after a brief pause.
Committee chairman Pat Leahy, D-Vt., has said he expects Sotomayor will win some Republican votes, and Graham has dropped several hints he may be one of them.
He was not in the Senate when Sotomayor was confirmed to the appeals court in 1998, but several other Republicans were.
Among them, Sens. Robert Bennett of Utah, Thad Cochran of Mississippi, Susan Collins of Maine, Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, Orrin Hatch of Utah, Richard Lugar of Indiana and Olympia Snowe of Maine all voted in favor of her confirmation.
In that group, only Hatch is a member of the Judiciary panel.
Democrats devoted some of their question time to allowing Sotomayor to make her closing argument on her last day of face-to-face exchanges with the panel that will cast the first votes on her confirmation.
Asked by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., what historians would make of her, Sotomayor said, “I can’t live my life to write history’s story.” Then she added, “I hope it will say I’m a fair judge, I was a caring person and that I lived my life serving my country.”
Despite her years of judging, Republicans continued to focus more on Sotomayor’s writings and speeches. Some said they were still worried she would bring bias and a political agenda to the bench.
“It’s muddled, confusing, backtracking on issue after issue,” complained Republican Sen. Sessions. “I frankly am a bit disappointed in the lack of clarity and consistency in her answers.”
But Republicans conceded that Sotomayor had not committed any major mistake that might derail her nomination.
In more than a dozen hours of questioning, Sotomayor warded off frequent attempts to get her to weigh in on any major issue that could come before her as a justice. That’s typical of Supreme Court nominees.