WASHINGTON — Pushing toward an election-year Supreme Court confirmation vote, a polarized U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday approved Elena Kagan to be the third current female justice.
Just one Republican joined Democrats to approve Kagan’s nomination and send it to the full Senate, where she is expected to win confirmation within weeks.
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If confirmed, Kagan would be the fourth woman to serve on the court and her swearing-in would mark the first time that three women have served together on the nine-member Supreme Court. Justices often serve for life so their influence can extend well beyond the president who nominates them.
The debate over her nomination has unfolded against a highly partisan backdrop, at a time when Republicans are focused on making sharp distinctions between themselves and Obama, who approval ratings are sagging little more than 100 days out from November elections.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican, broke with his party to cast the sole Republican “yes” vote on President Barack Obama’s nominee to succeed retiring Justice John Paul Stevens. The vote was 13-6.
“What’s in Elena Kagan’s heart is that of a good person who adopts a philosophy I disagree with,” Graham said. “She will serve this nation honorably, and it would not have been someone I would have chosen, but the person who did choose, President Obama, I think chose wisely.”
A few more Republicans are expected likely to back Kagan in the full Senate, where Democrats have more than enough votes to confirm her.
But most Republcian senators are against her, arguing that she would put her political views ahead of the law. They point to what they call her liberal agenda and on such issues as abortion and gun rights, and have chastised her for the decision as dean of Harvard Law School to bar military recruiters from the campus career services office because of the policy against openly gay soldiers.
“Ms. Kagan’s record shows that she supports an activist judicial philosophy, and that her personal and political views drive her legal views,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Republican.
Democrats praised Kagan, the 50-year-old who has served as the Obama administration’s solicitor general, calling her a highly qualified glass ceiling-shattering nominee who could bring consensus to an ideologically divided court.
“It becomes more and more apparent that we need a return to the center and a justice who will urge moderation and who will push for consensus. Elena Kagan’s record gives me confidence that she could be just such a voice,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat.
Republicans have been quicker to announce their opposition to Kagan than they were last year to Obama’s first high court nominee, Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Graham is the only Republican so far to say he’ll vote “yes.”
Democrats attributed the difference to political considerations by the Republicans.
“Sadly, it appears election-year politics may deprive her of the vote total that her nomination deserves,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer, a leading Democrat.