Updated: 4:31 p.m.
The Senate on Thursday voted 68-31 to confirm Sonia Sotomayor as the 111th Supreme Court justice, making her the first Latina and third female to serve on the nation’s highest court.
Sotomayor was approved with the support of 59 Democrats and nine Republicans, including Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) and Sens. George Voinovich (Ohio), Mel Martinez (Fla.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Judd Gregg (N.H.), Kit Bond (Mo.), Dick Lugar (Ind.) and Maine’s Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe.
Only Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), who is battling brain cancer, did not vote.
With Vice President Joseph Biden not in attendance, the job of presiding over the Sotomayor confirmation vote fell to the chamber’s most junior member, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.). Franken, a member of the Judiciary Committee, has quickly found his footing during the 10-week confirmation process: Franken shined during her hearings, largely nixing humor for probing questions as he took the national stage as a lawmaker for the first time. Franken also used the confirmation as the occasion for his first floor speech as a Senator on Wednesday night.
Although, as is customary, Sotomayor was not present at the vote, her mother did attend, crying as lawmakers solemnly rose from their chairs to announce their votes.
Sens. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) and Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) — who have been absent from the chamber due to illness and injury, respectively — made surprise appearances on the floor, with both Democrats being ushered into the well via wheelchairs to cast their votes.
Retiring Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) was the last member to vote, stalking red-faced into the chamber several minutes after other Members had registered their positions.
Democrats hailed the confirmation as a historic vote. “This is a remarkable thing in our history. This is the American dream. This is the dream we all speak about when we campaign ... we’ve made it real,— Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said afterward.
“We’ve made history today, confirming the first Hispanic, the third woman and the third person of color ... [we] also made history by confirming someone with more experience than anyone who’s ever been— confirmed, added Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
President Barack Obama hailed the confirmation as well. “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,— he said.
Sotomayor was Obama’s first Supreme Court pick, but she’s unlikely to be the last. With several of the nine justices aging, and the possibility of another retirement in the offing, many believe the president will get another shot to make his mark on the high court.
Prior to the vote Republicans argued vigorously against Sotomayor’s nomination, warning that she would become an activist jurist, using her personal beliefs to influence her rulings.
“In America, everyone should receive equal justice under the law. This is the most fundamental test for any judge, and all the more so for those who would sit on our nation’s highest court, where a judge’s impulses and preferences are not subject to review. Because I’m not convinced that Judge Sotomayor would keep this commitment, I cannot support her nomination,— Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said.
The confirmation process was largely without drama, although it did have a few moments of surprise. Among them: Alexander’s announcement that he would break with the rest of GOP leadership to support her; Graham’s decision to stand as the lone Judiciary Committee Republican to vote in favor of the nomination; and freshman Sen. Mark Begich’s (D-Alaska) bizarre decision to wait until an hour before her confirmation vote to lend his support.
Senate Republicans spent much of the first month of the process searching for a smoking gun to derail the nomination. In the end, they were unsuccessful, instead handing on some of her previous statements off the bench. Democrats were largely on message the entire time, calling her a qualified judge with a tremendous life story who would follow the law.
Once the Judiciary Committee launched its week of hearings, Republicans significantly ramped up their criticisms. Led by Judiciary Committee ranking member Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), Republicans used the hearings not only to press Sotomayor on her statements — including her now-famous “wise Latina— speech in which she said she would come to better conclusions than a white male — but also to lay the foundation for a broader battle over the role of the judiciary in American society.
But following the example set by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, Sotomayor deftly avoided making any controversial statements before the committee. All the while, she made repeated efforts to walk back from some of her more incendiary comments.
Senate Democrats mounted an eleventh-hour offensive against the Republican attacks, charging that the GOP’s opposition may be in part based on ethnic considerations. But that campaign was short-lived, with most Senators touting her record, humble beginnings and 17 years of judicial experience rather than her race.
Following the vote, Democrats once again warned that their opposition to Sotomayor could end up hurting their ability to regain footing in the Latino community after Republicans lost ground there in the wake of the 2006 immigration debate. “As Hispanics we’re often told, Well, you have to work harder’ ... [but] if you meet all the qualifications you have been told to meet and you are still told no ... that sends a tough message— to the Latino community, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (N.J.) said.
Perhaps the most significant result of the Sotomayor confirmation process is the fact that Republicans en masse abandoned their long-held argument that presidents should be given deference in selecting nominees.
A number of Republicans — most notably Judiciary Committee Sens. Orrin Hatch (Utah) and Chuck Grassley (Iowa) — broke with their tradition of voting for Supreme Court nominees to vote no. They argued that then-Sen. Obama set a new standard for deciding whether to support a nominee when he backed a failed filibuster of Alito.
And while Grassley, who is up for re-election next year and slated to become the ranking member on Judiciary in 2011, may have also been looking to shore up support from conservatives, Hatch and others made it clear that they were choosing to abandon their previous standard in favor of what many now deem the “Obama standard.—