Alaska freshman pegs Sotomayor as a moderate

Sen. Mark Begich (Alaska), one of the last Democratic senators to back Sonia Sotomayor for the Supreme Court, said that she will be a different judge than expected.

"I think Sotomayor is much more moderate than the judge she's replacing," Begich told The Hill. "And I think she will surprise people."

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Begich, unlike most of his colleagues, hadn't announced his position on President Barack Obama's first High Court choice until minutes before the Senate vote to confirm Sotomayor on Thursday.

Begich, a centrist freshman, said that many Alaskans won't like his decision. He said he received "mixed" feedback on Sotomayor from constituents, who were concerned about her rulings on gun rights. Begich had touted his "A" rating from the National Rifle Association (NRA) during his race last year against 7-term Sen. Ted Stevens (R).

"One view will be, 'Hopefully, he did what he thought was right based on information,'" Begich said. "The other side will say, 'Well geez, he wasn't supportive of the NRA.'"

Begich said he disagreed with the NRA's opposition to Sotomayor, which focused on her ruling earlier this year upholding a New York state prohibition on nunchucks. Sotomayor joined a federal appeals court decision affirming a lower court's ruling that the Second Amendment didn't apply to state statutes.

While the NRA argued that states' rights should have been respected in the nunchuck case, the gun rights group ignored the states' rights argument in a Supreme Court ruling against the District of Columbia's handgun ban, Begich said.

"Why? Because that was good decision from [the NRA's] perspective," Begich said. "In both situations, they went on precedent and they went on restrictive view of the law, not a 'let's expand out and legislate' [view], and that to me was important. I don't want a judge that's going to get on the bench and start advocating or being active in legislation."

Sotomayor won confirmation on a 68-31 vote. All Democrats except for Sen. Edward Kennedy (Mass.), who is battling brain cancer, voted her confirmation along with the two independent senators and nine Republicans.

She will replace David Souter, who was thought to be a conservative when nominated by President George H.W. Bush. Souter ended up voting regularly with the court's more liberal bloc, disappointing Republicans who pushed for his confirmation.

Begich said he didn't make up his mind until Wednesday, after he had heard floor speeches of Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.) and centrist Democrats in support of the nomination. Begich said he didn't receive any pressure from President Obama or other administration officials to vote for confirmation. In the final hours before the vote, only Begich and Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), who has been recovering from illness, hadn't announce their position on Sotomayor's nomination.

Begich said his choice was "very important" and that he didn't want to feel hurried.

"You can point to every single president who thought they appointed someone who thought they were going to be a certain way,  and they weren't," Begich said.

"Some people knew instinctively where they were going to go," he added. "I'm a freshman. I want to take my time."