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Sotomayor Confirmed as First Hispanic on Supreme Court

August 6, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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The U.S. Senate voted 68-31 Thursday to confirm Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, making her the first Hispanic and third woman to serve as a justice.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The U.S. Senate confirmed Sonia Sotomayor to the nation’s highest court today. The federal appeals court judge will now become the first Hispanic justice and the third woman to sit on the United States Supreme Court.

Jeffrey Brown has our lead story report.

SEN. AL FRANKEN, D-Minn.: On this vote, the yeas are 68 and the nays are 31.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The confirmation vote this afternoon made Judge Sotomayor the 111th justice in Supreme Court history. And the man who nominated her, President Obama, marked the occasion a short time later.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: 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. This is a roll that the Senate has played for more than two centuries, helping to ensure that equal justice under the law is not merely a phrase inscribed above our courthouse door, but a description of what happens every single day inside the courtroom.

JEFFREY BROWN: Fifty-seven of fifty-eight Senate Democrats approved the judge, as did two independents who generally vote with Democrats. Only Edward Kennedy missed the vote. He remained in Massachusetts suffering from brain cancer.

Another ailing Democratic veteran, Robert Byrd of West Virginia, did appear today to vote in favor.

Nine Republicans crossed party lines to vote yes, as well. Among them was George Voinovich of Ohio. He rejected criticism that Sotomayor’s record shows an aggressive liberal agenda.

SEN. GEORGE VOINOVICH, R-Ohio: Judge Sotomayor’s opinions for the most part were lengthy, workmanlike, limited rulings, the sort of opinions that exhibit the judicial restraint one would hope for a Supreme Court justice.

JEFFREY BROWN: But the majority of Republicans voted no and saw in those same rulings and Sotomayor’s speeches and writings reason to oppose her confirmation. Charles Grassley of Iowa.

SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY, R-Iowa: Unfortunately, Judge Sotomayor’s speeches and writings over the years reveal a judicial philosophy that highlights the importance of personal preferences and beliefs in her judicial method.

JEFFREY BROWN: Democrat Tom Carper of Delaware said that kind of scrutiny presents a standard no nominee or senator could meet.

SEN. TOM CARPER, D-Del.: As many of us know from personal experience, it’s easy to take one vote, one decision, or one line from one of our speeches to completely take it out of context and make us appear to be someone we are not.

JEFFREY BROWN: The broader politics of the vote were on display afterward. Democrat Robert Menendez was asked whether Republicans would suffer because so many opposed the first Hispanic justice.

SEN. ROBERT MENENDEZ, D-N.J.: For the Hispanic community, which is not monolithic, it was monolithic about Judge Sonia Sotomayor. If you meet all of the challenges that you are told you need to meet and still you can be told no, despite fidelity to the Constitution, the law, and precedent, then it sends a tough message to us as a community. And I think that message is one that will be seriously viewed in the days ahead.

JEFFREY BROWN: For their part, Republicans held no post-vote briefings on the confirmation.

Judge Sotomayor will take the place of retiring Justice David Souter, who, though nominated by President George H.W. Bush, became a reliable liberal vote. Her seating is not expected to change the court’s ideological divide. She’ll be sworn in Saturday, allowing her to take part in a special re-argument of a campaign finance case the court will hear next month.

And now for some perspective on what today’s confirmation means to the Hispanic community and beyond, we turn to Ramona Romero, president of the Hispanic National Bar Association; Danny Vargas, chairman of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly; and Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

Ramona Romero, what does the confirmation mean to you?

Historic day for Hispanics

Danny Vargas
Republican National Hispanic Assembly
I would say that it was good and right that she went through a rigorous, strict scrutiny through the hearings process and was able to answer tough questions from both Democrats and Republicans.

RAMONA ROMERO, Hispanic National Bar Association: To me, it's a dream come true. It's a reaffirmation that we Latinos can be recognized as contributing members of our society and that there are no limits to what we can achieve.

JEFFREY BROWN: Danny Vargas, what does it mean to you?

DANNY VARGAS, Republican National Hispanic Assembly: Well, I think it's a moment to be celebrated. It's a great American story, not just for Hispanics, but all Americans, of a woman who worked hard, got educated, did the right things, and was able to achieve great success in her professional life and her personal life.

I think, at the same time, though, I would say that it was good and right that she went through a rigorous, strict scrutiny through the hearings process and was able to answer tough questions from both Democrats and Republicans.

JEFFREY BROWN: You told us before she would not have been your nominee.

DANNY VARGAS: She would not have been my nominee. I think I would have preferred a nominee that would have -- from an ideological perspective been more to the center. She's clearly left of center.

But I think, in her rulings over her 17 years on the federal bench, she's demonstrated that she can be mainstream for the most part. But I can see where sincere senators would have some real issues with some of her rulings and some of her statements in the past. So...

JEFFREY BROWN: And you talked with a number of them in the days beforehand about those very things, so they were wrestling with that.

DANNY VARGAS: They were wrestling with it. I think many -- for example, Orrin Hatch, who's been a champion within the Hispanic community for many years, he wanted to see a Hispanic on the Supreme Court.

Miguel Estrada would have been a great nominee to go through the appeals court process and eventually become a Supreme Court nominee. He was treated very, very badly by the Democrats during his process to become confirmed.

So I think it's going to be very important for us to be able to say that, while she was a great nominee, there were issues that people had with her.

Ethnicity, and the role of a judge

Romona Romero
Hispanic National Bar Association
It is clear from Judge Sonia Sotomayor's 17-year record on the bench that she adheres to the rule of law. She is a mainstream jurist, and that is the key, and that should be the focus of the debate.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ms. Romero, there was a lot during this whole process, there was a lot of talk, just to stay with the Senate debate process, a lot of talk about the role of ethnicity in a person's -- and gender in a person's ability to be a judge and how that would play as a judge.

What did you take from that debate? Was it helpful? Was it healthy? Did anything useful come from that?

RAMONA ROMERO: Well, I mean, I think I find ironic that the folks who focused on that issue do not think about the fact that 106 of 110 Supreme Court justices have been white males. And inherent in a lot of the questions is the premise that only white males can be impartial.

It is clear from Judge Sonia Sotomayor's 17-year record on the bench that she adheres to the rule of law. She is a mainstream jurist, and that is the key, and that should be the focus of the debate.

I also disagree with Mr. Vargas' assessment that there are issues for sincere senators to be concerned about. The test cannot be whether you agree or disagree with a judge's likely rulings. After all, we have a fair and independent judiciary so that we have a safe place as a people when we disagree with our government, so that we can rely the political pressures are not going to inform the ultimate outcome of legal decisions.

So I think it's a horrible standard to impose on a judge that you can only get my vote, if I'm a U.S. senator, if I'm likely to agree with your opinions.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Vargas, what do you make of the debate that took place over the last weeks?

DANNY VARGAS: Again, we're not going to replay the hearings here, but I think what we had to see was -- my recommendation to Republican senators was to make sure that we had a fair and respectful process, go through the strict scrutiny, ask the tough questions, because I think even Judge Sotomayor would have preferred to have that strict scrutiny so she can go through the tough questions.

But I think the real concern, though, is not a particular -- how she might vote on a particular case, but her view of the role of the court. We do have three branches of government that go through this balancing act, through this tug of war every day. So I think some of the concerns of sincere senators was what her view of the court was going to be moving forward.

Public interest in Sotomayor

Andrew Kohut
Pew Research Center
She got a good reception from the American public, but especially from Hispanic citizens, as you might imagine.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Andy, I want to -- I want to bring in Andy Kohut here, because you've been tracking the interest in the confirmation. We don't want to replay the whole debate here, but in terms of interest?

ANDREW KOHUT, president, Pew Research Center: Strong interest. Strong interest. Fifty-four percent of the public said they'd been following the story very or fairly closely. When we were dealing with Alito a year or so ago or two years ago, it was only 37 percent.

So this is a story that engaged Americans of all ethnic groups and men and women and so on and so forth, 51 percent of Latinos, not particularly greater than the public at large, but for both Latinos and the general public much greater than usual for a Supreme Court nominee.

JEFFREY BROWN: Were you able to look at some of the particular aspects that we're talking about here, we're debating about, the gender issues, the ethnicity issues, the things that kind of stirred people up?

ANDREW KOHUT: Not so much that, but more the bottom-line reactions to what should happen here. And for the last six to eight weeks, we found solid majorities or majorities of the public saying that she should be confirmed, the last poll by a margin of 50 percent to 28 percent.

Now, as you might expect, among Hispanic citizens, the margins of support were much higher, 61 percent to 13 percent.

And what we had seen with both Justice -- the confirmation of Justice Roberts and Justice Alito, a much closer division of opinion on both of them, especially Alito. So she got a good reception from the American public, but especially from Hispanic citizens, as you might imagine.

Implications of G.O.P. opposition

Danny Vargas
Republican National Hispanic Assembly
We're just going to keep an eye on how she rules in the future on those important issues that will affect all Americans.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, Ms. Romero, what does that interest and now the confirmation translate into, particularly in terms of politics, the political impact? We heard Senator Martinez in our piece. What do you think will be the impact?

RAMONA ROMERO: Well, I think we are a generous people. We forgive, but we don't forget. And I think the Republican Party missed a great opportunity to reconnect and re-engage with the Latino community.

I was sitting in the gallery today, and I was taking notice of who voted yes and who voted no. And more importantly, there were watch parties throughout the country today where people of all races, ethnicities, and both genders were watching what was happening.

So I think this was a missed opportunity for the Republicans. I think it sent a horrible message to the Hispanic community, because we offered one of our very best, and they found her wanting.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Vargas, will there be political repercussions?

DANNY VARGAS: There may be. But I'll be honest with you: I think what Republicans will need to do is point out the fact that Democrats treated conservative nominees like Miguel Estrada, like Janice Rogers Brown very, very unfairly and very negatively.

Judge Sotomayor was treated with respect. She was given a fair process. At the end of the day, though, it's going to be up to Hispanics to realize where this fits in the equation.

I think they will have seen this vote as something that they didn't like, they didn't agree with, but in the big scheme of things, there are things like the economy, things like health care, things like foreign policy that they will also take into account as they move forward in voting in the future.

JEFFREY BROWN: And how diverse is that community? We heard Senator Menendez talking about it is a diverse -- but in this case, he thought it was a single bloc. Do you agree?

DANNY VARGAS: And I agree. And I think most -- by and large, the vast majority of Hispanics supported Judge Sotomayor's nomination to the court. I would expect moving forward we're going to keep watching how she rules in the future.

I would love to be able to see her move forward and become a great Supreme Court justice. I think her personal story and her life accomplishments would be a great example to not just young Hispanics coming up, but all Americans. This is a great American story.

But we're just going to keep an eye on how she rules in the future on those important issues that will affect all Americans.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Andy, you looked at this aspect of it, as well. I mean, on the other hand, I assume that Republican senators voting against her faced -- well, they had to deal with their party, as well, right?

ANDREW KOHUT: They had to deal with a base that increasingly thinks that they're not conservative enough and they're not standing up for the principles of the Republican Party.

On the other hand, the Republicans are in a deep hole with Hispanic voters. In the first term, they were doing quite nicely -- the Republicans were doing quite nicely thanks to President Bush's popularity with Hispanic voters. They won 44 percent of the vote in '04. That fell to 30 percent in '06 and 30 percent in '08.

And we have a situation where the Republican Party is 88 percent white Anglo, the same percentage that was white Anglo in 2000. The Democrats, on the other hand, have changed from 64 percent white Anglo to 56 percent in eight years.

Hispanic voters are not attracted to the Republican Party by a margin of 55 percent to 8 percent. The Pew Hispanic Center found it's the Democrats who care more about the interests of Hispanics in this country. A problem.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ms. Romero, I just want to end coming back a little bit to where we started with the larger impact. As I said in our opening piece, the thinking is that, in terms of the Supreme Court, this is unlikely to have a huge impact, substituting Judge Sotomayor for Justice Souter. What about for the legal system more broadly, though? Do you see some kind of broader impact?

RAMONA ROMERO: I think it's important, because our justice system relies on public trust and confidence in its partiality. It is important that that system reflects all segments of society.

Hispanics are obviously the fastest growing and largest minority in the country, so the picture matters. It's important for Hispanic children and it's important for all people in this country, for the picture of the Supreme Court to reflect the broad scope, the rich mosaic that we are as a people.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Vargas, a last word?

DANNY VARGAS: No, and I agree. I think the optics of it, of having a Hispanic on the Supreme Court after all these years is a wonderful thing. I think it's a monumental historic occasion.

But I agree with Senator Hatch in that I think it would have been preferable to have a nominee that may not have been that controversial. I think the Republicans in the Senate also sent a message to President Obama saying, "This is the line. Don't go any further to the left than this in any future Supreme Court nominations that you might have."

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Danny Vargas, Andy Kohut, and Ramona Romero, thank you all very much.

DANNY VARGAS: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You can find out how your senators voted on the Sotomayor confirmation at our Web site, newshour.pbs.org. Also there, an interview with Amy Walter of Hotline about the politics of the vote.