Sotomayor sails through Judiciary Committee

Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court sailed through the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday by a wide margin but only bare bipartisan support.

Committee members voted 13-6 to send the nomination to the full Senate floor, where it will be debated before the Senate recesses next Friday. The nomination is widely assumed, as was Tuesday’s vote, since Democrats hold a 12-7 edge on the panel.

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As expected, the sole GOP vote on Sotomayor’s behalf Tuesday came from Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, saying he understands the Republican criticism of Sotomayor but wanted to demonstrate a reversal from the filibusters that were launched against Chief Justice John Roberts’s nomination in 2005 and Samuel Alito's in 2006.

Graham said as Sotomayor’s hearing continued two weeks ago, his comfort with her “got easier, not harder,” even though the text of her most controversial speeches “bugged the hell out of me.” But Graham said he considered the speeches in a larger context of her judicial record and life story.

“I base my vote on qualifications, and I came away from the hearing feeling she was well-qualified,” Graham said. “I haven’t seen this activism that we all dread and reject … I would not have chosen her, but I understand why President Obama did.”

Sotomayor was not present Tuesday — she went through four days of questioning two weeks ago — and was opposed by the other six Republicans on the panel: ranking member Jeff Sessions (Ala.), John Cornyn (Texas), Tom Coburn (Okla.), Jon Kyl (Ariz.), Chuck Grassley (Iowa) and Orrin Hatch (Utah).

The Republicans repeated their party’s oft-stated criticism that Sotomayor has a demonstrated activist bent that will continue if she reaches the court. The GOP senators also repeatedly expressed frustration with the nominee’s “evasions” and “backtracking” during her hearings, and also complained that she did not adequately respect the Second Amendment.

“Her speeches and articles described a troubling approach to judging that her hearing testimony did not resolve,” said Hatch, a former committee chairman. “In the end, Judge Sotomayor’s record regarding her approach to judging simply left too many unresolved controversies and too many conflicts with fundamental principles about the judiciary in which I deeply believe.”

Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) took the lead in defending Sotomayor, saying her 17-year judicial record has demonstrated she has a fair and unbiased mindset.

"Judge Sotomayor is well-qualified; one need look no further than her experience, ability, temperament and judgment," Leahy said. "In her 17 years on the bench there is not one example, let alone a pattern, of her ruling based on bias or prejudice or sympathy."

Leahy said the scheduling for the full Senate floor vote is up to Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

The National Rifle Association is including votes on Sotomayor in its future evaluations of legislators, as the group warned last week in a letter to Senate leaders.

As a replacement for retiring Justice David Souter, whose rulings were widely viewed as left-leaning, Sotomayor is not expected to significantly alter the court’s philosophical balance.

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One surprising bit of criticism on Tuesday came from Wisconsin’s two Democratic senators, Russ Feingold and Herb Kohl, who criticized the lack of forthrightness in recent Supreme Court nomination hearings. Since the watershed hearings of Robert Bork in 1987 and Clarence Thomas in 1991, nominees are now coached to such an extent by presidential administrations that candor has suffered, Kohl and Feingold argued.

“I’ve said before that I do not understand why the only person who cannot express an opinion on virtually anything the Supreme Court has done in recent years is the person from whom the American public most needs to hear,” Feingold said. “These hearings have become little more than theater, where senators try to ask clever questions and nominees try to come up with cleverer ways to respond without answering.”

But Arlen Specter (D-Pa.), a former committee chairman, cautioned his fellow senators, explaining that Bork answered so many questions forthrightly at his 1987 hearing that his nomination was scuttled. Specter said the Senate should be careful not to overreact and demand so much from nominees that the process is poisoned.

“If a nominee was rejected for not answering questions, it might set a standard,” Specter said.