Law & Courts

Senate Panel Approves Judge Sotomayor for High Court

By Erik W. Robelen — July 28, 2009 3 min read
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By guest blogger Erik Robelen:

Judge Sonia Sotomayor moved one step closer to taking a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court today, when her nomination was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee by a vote of 13 to 6, with just one Republican joining the panel’s 12 Democrats. President Barack Obama’s nominee is expected to win final confirmation by the full Senate next week.

“Judge Sotomayor is well qualified,” said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont who chairs the Judiciary Committee, noting her “tremendous experience” and “wisdom.” He added, “She’s a restrained, fair, and impartial judge who applies the law to the facts to decide cases.”

But the panel’s ranking Republican, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, said he opposed the president’s pick for the high court. He argued that her remarks in multiple speeches over the years raised serious concerns about her ability to bring impartiality to issues before the high court. He also criticized her decisions in several recent cases from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, including the high-profile case of Ricci v. DeStefano, in which a group of firefighters from New Haven, Conn., alleged reverse discrimination.

“The decisions are extremely short, oddly short, and lack careful analysis,” Sen. Sessions said. “Each reaches an erroneous conclusion.”

He said specifically about the Ricci case, which was reversed in June by the Supreme Court on a vote of 5-4, “Her opinion violated the constitutional demand, I believe, that no one should be denied the equal protection of the laws because of their race. ... That was a big case, a huge case of great importance.”

Judge Sotomayor and two fellow judges rejected the firefighters’ claims and upheld the city’s decision to throw out a promotions exam. The city said it feared the results, in which no black firefighters scored high enough to win a promotion, could spur a civil rights lawsuit from minorities. Mark Walsh wrote a recent analysis here of what the case could mean for school districts.

Legal issues affecting education surfaced repeatedly during the Senate confirmation hearings for Judge Sotomayor earlier this month, most notably as the senators and the nominee discussed racial diversity and discrimination, including a schools case she handled at the appellate level. As I noted in a previous story, Judge Sotomayor has handled a relatively small number of cases dealing directly with K-12 education during her 17 years as a federal judge at the district and appellate court levels.

The one Republican on the Judiciary Committee to vote for Judge Sotomayor was Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. Although Sen. Graham said she was not the nominee he would have chosen for the high court, he argued that she is “well qualified,” of “good character,” and has not demonstrated the “judicial activism” for which some conservatives have criticized her.

Sen. Graham argued that her judicial approach is “left of center, but certainly within the mainstream.”

Several senators at today’s Judiciary Committee meeting expressed frustration with the current state of the Supreme Court hearings process, in which the nominees typically reveal little about their judicial philosophy and how they would approach key issues, instead often saying it would be inappropriate to “prejudge” potential future cases before the court.

“I remain unconvinced that the dodge now all nominees use” is reasonable, said Democratic Sen. Russell D. Feingold of Wisconsin. “These hearings have become little more than theater. … I do not think it makes for meaningful advice and consent.”

Sen. Tom Coburn, a Republican from Nebraska, echoed that concern in his remarks.

“The great disturbance we have is that we can’t get real answers,” he said. “We need to change the rules for the hearings… We need to let judges really let us know what they think.”

Photo: U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., right, talks with the committee’s ranking Republican, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., during the committee’s vote on the nomination of U.S. Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor on July 28.
—Susan Walsh/AP

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A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.


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