Sonia Sotomayor was confirmed as the 111th U.S. Supreme Court justice Thursday and the first Hispanic, a historic moment that was embraced even by Republican opponents who sharply questioned her impartiality.
The 68-31 vote gives Democrats their first justice in 15 years, though Sotomayor is not expected to sway the ideological makeup of the nine-member court, replacing a reliably liberal David Souter.
And it was a momentous day for Hispanics, who found common ground in Sotomayor's personal narrative — the poor Puerto Rican girl from a housing project in the Bronx who conquered the elite bastions of Princeton and Yale to become a successful federal judge.
Sotomayor, 55, will become only the third woman to serve on the high court when she is sworn in on Saturday.
"Years from now, we will remember this time, when we crossed paths with the quintessentially American journey of Sonia Sotomayor," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who chairs the Judiciary Committee, moments before the vote.
President Barack Obama said the vote affirmed that Sotomayor has the "intellect, the temperament, the history, the integrity and the independence of mind to ably serve on our nation's highest court."
Sotomayor watched the day unfold on TV at the federal courthouse in New York where she has worked for years, first as a district judge and then on a federal appeals court. Supporters washed her in applause after the tally.
Ceremony aside, there was little drama leading up to the mostly party-line vote. Nine of the 40 Republicans, including Florida Sen. Mel Martinez, joined 57 Democrats and two independents in voting yes. Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., who has brain cancer, was the only senator absent.
Despite some Republicans fretting that opposing Sotomayor could damage their standing with Hispanics, the fastest-growing voting demographic, most Senate Republicans questioned her impartiality and focused on speeches that they said suggested personal and liberal biases affect her decisions.
"Judge Sotomayor is certainly a fine person with an impressive story and a distinguished background," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said. "But a judge must be able to check his or her personal or political agenda at the courtroom door and do justice evenhandedly, as the judicial oath requires. This is the most fundamental test. It is a test that Judge Sotomayor does not pass."
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who had never voted against a Supreme Court nominee in three decades in office, cited a recent decision Sotomayor joined that said the Second Amendment does not bar state restrictions on weapons as well as other concerns.
"I feel very badly that I have to vote negatively — it's not what I wanted to do when this process started — but I believe that I'm doing the honorable and right thing," Hatch said.
Martinez, the first Cuban-American senator, broke with his party, casting it as a "momentous and historic opportunity." He insisted, however, that Sotomayor's broad judicial experience trumped ceremony.
In a stark rebuke to his party, Martinez cast aside criticism that Sotomayor was an activist judge who lets personal bias color her decisions. Republicans focused intensely on a 2001 speech in which Sotomayor said a "wise Latina woman" might come to a better judgment than a white male who didn't have the same experiences.
"I would rather put my trust and my expectations for the future on her 17-year record of judicial decisions than I would on one or two speeches she might have given," Martinez said.
Another racially charged issue that played a large role in the confirmation hearings was an appellate decision that Sotomayor joined against white firefighters in New Haven, Conn.
They filed suit after the city threw out an exam required for promotion because minority firefighters largely failed while the white firefighters did well.
The decision opened Sotomayor to criticism that she allows racial preferences to affect her decisions, which some critics called a form of reverse racism. Republicans were emboldened when the Supreme Court in June overturned that appellate court ruling and said the exam results shouldn't have been discarded.
Sotomayor addressed both issues during sometimes intense question-and-answer sessions with the Senate Judiciary Committee in July.
The firefighter case, Ricci vs. DeStefano, she said, had nothing to do with affirmative action, but rather what the city could do when a test had a "disparate impact" on one group of employees. And she noted repeatedly that the appeals court merely upheld lower decisions.
She essentially retracted the wise Latina statement. "I was using a rhetorical flourish that fell flat," she insisted.
Sotomayor conceded that her upbringing and experience help guide her but said her judicial philosophy is simple: "fidelity to the law."
Unflappable throughout the process, she emerged unscathed and even gained a few Republican supporters.
Voting began at 3 p.m. Thursday and adhered to a formal practice reserved for only the most serious matters. Senators remained at their wood-backed seats and, one by one, rose as their name was called.
Florida Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson projected a confident "aye."
"Here we have a judge who will use a lot of common sense in making judicial decisions," he said in a speech before the vote. "I believe that Judge Sotomayor will be a fair, impartial and an outstanding Supreme Court justice."
Some conservatives say they think Sotomayor may have made it harder for Obama to nominate another liberal to the court.
Leahy scoffed at that notion at a post-vote news conference, pounding his fist on a lectern to say Obama should do "exactly, exactly" what he did in nominating a judge like Sotomayor.
Democrats saw political implications, too, asserting that Republicans could be hurt by their wide opposition to the first Hispanic justice. Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., said it was a "tough message" that voters would consider.
"For Hispanic Americans," he said after the vote, "today the mantle over the Supreme Court that says 'equal justice under the law' becomes one step closer to reality."
Times researcher Thomas Mosher contributed to this report. Alex Leary can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.