Sotomayor's Last Nomination Fight

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From left: Mark Lennihan / AP; Jamal A. Wilson / AFP / Getty

President Obama's Supreme Court nominee, Judge Sonia Sotomayor, and former Republican Senate majority leader Trent Lott of Mississippi

In introducing Sonia Sotomayor as his nominee for the Supreme Court, President Obama was careful to stress that the Appeals Court judge had already been confirmed twice by the Senate in the 1990s. But while the first of those confirmations went remarkably smoothly, the second was held up by the same kind of partisan warfare that many observers are bracing for now.

At the time, the GOP tried to block Sotomayor's nomination to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals because they feared she was being lined up for a spot on the Supreme Court. It took a piece of congressional sleight of hand to hold up that nomination for over a year, but in the end, the Republicans had to cave, and Sotomayor was approved. (See pictures of Judge Sonia Sotomayor.)

Sotomayor's nomination battle began in 1997, five years after President George H.W. Bush, following the suggestion of New York Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, nominated her to the Southern District Court of New York. With a minimum of political fuss, she became the first Hispanic federal judge in the state. Nominated to the Appeals Court by President Bill Clinton in the summer of 1997, she was overwhelmingly approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee — including its then chairman, Republican Orrin Hatch of Utah. But Mississippi's Trent Lott, then the GOP leader, prevented the full Senate from taking up the nomination by using a "secret hold," a procedure that allows a Senator to prevent a motion from reaching the Senate floor for a vote.

Lott took the action primarily because of rumors — entirely unfounded, it turned out — that Clinton was trying to fast-track Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, a tactic his predecessor had used to elevate Clarence Thomas. The rumors were in turn based on speculation that liberal Justice John Paul Stevens was about to retire; he remains on the court to date. Rush Limbaugh at the time warned that Sotomayor was being put on a "rocket ship" to the Supreme Court. (See the top 10 Supreme Court nomination battles.)

The secret hold infuriated Democrats, especially Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont, who described it as cowardly: "In fact, how disturbing, how petty and how shameful: trying to disqualify an outstanding Hispanic woman judge by an anonymous hold."

In the end, after strong lobbying by Democrats and Hispanic groups, Sotomayor's nomination came up for a vote in the Senate on Oct. 3, 1998. The vote was 67-29 in her favor. The nays included two Republicans who had voted against her in the Judiciary Committee: John Ashcroft, who is no longer on the Hill, and John Kyl of Arizona, who is still on the committee and is also the Senate Republican whip. (Seven GOP members who are still in the Senate today voted to approve the nomination.)

In a statement on Tuesday, Kyl congratulated Sotomayor on her nomination, adding that he would "take great care in examining her record to ensure that she demonstrates personal integrity, a commitment to the rule of law and a judicial temperament." He hinted that the nomination process would not be short. "When Samuel Alito was first nominated [in 2005], the minority was afforded 93 days before he received a confirmation vote," he said. "I would expect that Senate Democrats will afford the minority the same courtesy as we move forward with this process."

See four myths about Supreme Court nominees.

Read "Smooth Sailing: Sotomayor Headed to Easy Confirmation."