It's Official: Sotomayor First Latina U.S. Supreme Court
Sonia Sotomayor won historic Senate confirmation on Thursday as the first Hispanic justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, in a big victory for President Barack Obama over stiff Republican objections.
By an easy 68-31 margin, lawmakers lifted the 55-year-old appeals court judge to the bench that serves as the final arbiter of the U.S. Constitution and is called upon to decide bitter feuds on issues like gun rights and abortion.
"I'm filled with pride in this achievement and great confidence that Judge Sotomayor will make an outstanding Supreme Court justice," Obama said moments after the vote. "It's a wonderful day for America."
Obama's Democratic allies and a handful of Republicans joined forces to make Sotomayor, who is of Puerto Rican descent, the 111th justice and just the third woman to sit on the court in its 220-year history.
Sotomayor's rise from a poor neighborhood in New York's Bronx borough, through elite Ivy League universities and on to the heights of the U.S. judicial system mirrored the ascent of the president who nominated her.
She was to be sworn in on Saturday at 11:00 am (1500 GMT) at the Supreme Court building, with Chief Justice John Roberts administering the oath of office, a court spokeswoman said.
In a statement after the vote, Senate Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid hailed her confirmation as "an inspiration to not only millions of young women and Hispanic Americans, but our nation as whole."
Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele called her confirmation "a historic milestone" but signalled Obama may face a tougher battle when it comes to "future Supreme Court nominees."
Democrats and some Republicans predicted the vote will shape how Hispanic Americans, a fast-growing group, align themselves in the 2010 mid-term elections and the 2012 presidential contest.
Some observers said pitched political battles over Obama's sweeping push to remake U.S. health care and enact sweeping plans to fight climate change also stoked partisan tensions over Sotomayor.
While the outcome was never seriously in doubt, the final days of debate over handing her the lifetime job being vacated by retiring Justice David Souter brought harsh debates over whether she would be fair.
Republicans anchored their attacks on Obama's comment that he sought a judge with "empathy" and on Sotomayor's stated hope in public remarks over the years that a "wise Latina" could be a better judge than a white male.
"Empathy is a fine quality. But in the courtroom, it's only good if the judge has it for you," said Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
"What if you're the other guy? When he walks out of the courthouse, he can say he received his day in court. He can say he received a hearing. But he can't say he received justice," said the Kentucky lawmaker.
Democrats shot back that Sotomayor's 17-year record on the bench was that of a cautious and fair judge, devoted to upholding legal precedent, and warned Republicans who opposed her that they stood in the way of racial progress.
"Those who oppose her because of fear of her life experience do no justice to her or our nation. Their names will be listed in our nation's history of elected officials one step behind American's historic march forward," said Richard Durbin, the number two Democrat in the Senate.
Republicans bristled at any charge that they opposed Sotomayor based on her background, underlining that Democratic opposition had doomed the confirmation chances of a Republican appeals court nominee, Miguel Estrada.
"She is being treated with far more dignity," said Republican Senator Orrin Hatch. "I wish President Obama had chosen a Hispanic nominee whom all senators could support."
Ailing Democratic Senator Robert Byrd, 91 years old and the longest-serving senator, was brought in on a wheelchair to vote. Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy was a no-show because of health reasons -- he has been battling brain cancer.