WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Sonia Sotomayor completed an unlikely and historic journey last Thursday, one that began with her birth in a Bronx, New York, housing project 55 years ago and culminated in her confirmation as the Supreme Court's 111th justice.
When she was sworn into office Saturday, Sotomayor took her place as the high court's first Latino and just its third woman.
She was approved by a 68-31 Senate vote after three days of debate.
Nine Republicans crossed party lines to support her.
Sotomayor was nominated in May by President Obama to replace retiring Justice David H. Souter. A judge on the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals for the past 11 years, Sotomayor worked her way through two Ivy League schools and was a Manhattan prosecutor and corporate lawyer before joining the federal bench.
Shortly after the vote, Obama praised the result. "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," Obama said.
Some observers felt Democrats had done well to enlist more than token GOP support.
"Sixty-eight votes is a victory for the White House," said John Geer, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University. "If the Obama administration got that kind of support for health care, they would be dancing down Pennsylvania Avenue."
Over three long days of confirmation hearings, Sotomayor pledged "fidelity to the law" and rejected the "empathy standard" that Obama invoked when the Supreme Court vacancy arose. The president had said justices need to sometimes utilize empathy to understand the effect the court's decisions have on the lives of ordinary Americans.
But Sotomayor broke with Obama over that notion, a moment her conservative critics said was particularly significant.
That had Republicans claiming victory too Thursday -- saying it will be harder now for the president to nominate a liberal jurist if another court vacancy comes.
"By the end of the hearing not only Republicans, not only Democrats, but the nominee herself ended up rejecting the very empathy standard the president used when selecting her," Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said Thursday.
"This process reflected a broad public consensus that judges should be impartial, restrained and faithfully tethered to the law and the Constitution. It will now be harder to nominate activist judges."
Jonathan Adler, a conservative law professor at Case Western Reserve University, agreed.
"Insofar as Sotomayor and her defenders backed away from her prior statements and speeches, disavowed the president's embrace of "empathy" in judging, and refused to articulate or defend a "liberal" or "living constitution" approach to constitutional decision-making, the battle over the courts would seem to have shifted to more conservative terrain, Adler said.
But Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the committee, which oversaw Sotomayor's nomination, said on the Senate floor that Republicans had set up a "false choice."
"Some of those choosing to oppose this historic nomination have tried to justify their opposition by falsely contending that President Obama is pitting empathy against the rule of law," Leahy said. "This president and this nominee are committed to the rule of law. They recognize the role of life experience, not as a substitute for the law or in conflict with its mandates, but as informing judgment."
After the vote, Leahy was dismissive of the Republican opposition.
"If President Obama had nominated Moses the Lawgiver, they would have voted no," he said.
During the vote, the newest senator, Al Franken, D-Minn., presided over the chamber. The Democratic tally in the Senate was higher than expected because of the surprise arrival of the ailing Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, who cast a vote in Sotomayor's favor.
As the final vote was announced, Rep. José E. Serrano of the Bronx, a Democrat who represents the district where Sotomayor was born, embraced Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., on the Senate floor. Schumer had suggested Sotomayor as a potential justice to the White House even before Souter announced his retirement.