WASHINGTON – Democratic and Republicans senators alike lamented the increasingly sharp partisan divide over the Constitution and the courts Tuesday, and then divided mostly along party lines to approve Elena Kagan, President Barack Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court.
The lone maverick was Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who voted to confirm Kagan because, he said, she is smart, well-qualified and of good character.
“But yes, she’s liberal,” he said and paused. “Sort of expected that actually.”
Kagan won a 13-6 vote from the Senate Judiciary Committee, the next to last stop on her way to a lifetime seat on the Supreme Court. The Senate is expected to give her final approval in early August.
If confirmed, the nine-member Supreme Court will have four Democratic appointees for the first time since 1971. And for the first time ever, three of the justices will be women, and none will be a Protestant.
But Graham drew the studied attention of the committee members with his warning that partisan politics is playing too large a role when considering judges.
“Something’s changing when it comes to the ‘advice and consent’ clause,” he said, referring to the part of the Constitution that gives the Senate the power to approve the president’s court nominees. “Things are changing here, and they’re unnerving to me,” he said.
In the past, a president’s well-qualified nominees usually won an easy confirmation from the Senate. Justice John Paul Stevens, who Kagan would replace, won unanimous approval from the Senate in 1975, even though Democrats had a large majority and he was a Republican nominee.
Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony M. Kennedy also won on unanimous votes in the late 1980s. In the past decade, however, the Senate has split along party lines over Supreme Court candidates. Kagan is expected to win only a handful of Republican votes.
Obama shares part of the blame, Graham said. “Sen. Obama was part of the problem, not the solution,” he said.
Then an Illinois senator planning to run for president, Obama praised John G. Roberts Jr., President George W. Bush’s nominee to be chief justice, as being exceptionally well-qualified. He nonetheless voted “no” on his nomination. He also cast a “no” vote against Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., who was confirmed in 2006 with support from only four Democrats.