To the horror of abortion-rights groups and the glee of conservatives, the Senate voted by a lopsided 90-9 margin Tuesday to confirm David Hackett Souter as the nation's 105th Supreme Court justice.
Only a few Democratic senators voted against Souter, saying they fear - as do many feminist groups - that Souter will become the deciding vote to overturn the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision that guaranteed abortion on demand.Supporters of Souter - led by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah - praised him as a legal scholar and a caring man they say will keep an open mind on cases and make decisions based on the intent of the original framers of the Constitution.
"He's just exactly the kind of person with a broad background that we need on the Supreme Court," Hatch said in debate before the vote. "I think he showed he is a person of fairness. He's willing to listen. He's a person of independence."
Supreme Court officials said Souter will be sworn in next Tuesday and will begin hearing cases then. The court just began its new session on Monday, and by court tradition, Souter will not participate in decisions on cases argued before he joins the court.
Souter was a little-known New Hampshire jurist until Bush chose him as his first nominee to the court, replacing liberal William J. Brennan. Four other current justices are considered solid conservatives, one a conservative to moderate, two as moderates and only one a true liberal.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., who led the opposition to Souter said, "He will solidify a 5-4 anti-civil rights, anti-privacy majority inclined to turn back the clock on the historic progress of recent decades."
Even after 20 hours of testimony before the Senate Judiciary - the second-longest nominee hearing in history behind the one held for failed nominee Robert Bork - Kennedy said "the Senate is still in the dark about this nomination, and all of us are voting in the dark."
Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph Biden, D-Del., agreed that Souter is still largely a question mark and a judge who never ruled on such topics as abortion, but said Souter provided barely sufficient reason for Biden to give him the benefit of the doubt and support his nomination.
Biden said, "He's about the best we can expect, from my perspective, from this administration."
Souter pleased liberals in his testimony when he supported a right to privacy - upon which abortion-rights cases are based - talked of counseling a girl considering an abortion and vowed to keep an open mind on abortion and all cases that come before him.
But he stopped short of saying exactly how he would rule on the issue.
Other senators said they believed they had commitments from Souter to support liberal decisions on religious freedom and racial discrimination, but Hatch said, "Judge Souter did not commit as to how he would rule in those areas or almost any other area. And where he may have been more forthcoming, he is entitled to change his mind after reading the briefs and hearing oral arguments."
Democrats also warned the administration that it should not interpret the lopsided vote as a message that Bush should nominate others about whom little is known.
But Hatch and others countered that Souter is well-qualified having been a Rhodes scholar, a state attorney general, a state trial judge and a member of the New Hampshire Supreme Court.
Hatch said, "His ability to explain complicated legal doctrine, to address diverse aspects of federal and constitutional law and to describe with natural eloquence his judicial philosophy is, I believe, extraordinary."
Voting against confirmation were Democratic Sens. Daniel K. Akaka of Hawaii, Brock Adams of Washington, Alan Cranston of California, Bill Bradley and Frank J. Lautenberg of New Jersey, Quentin N. Burdick of North Dakota, John F. Kerry and Kennedy of Massachusetts, and Barbara S. Mikulski of Maryland.
Sen. Pete Wilson, R-Calif., missed the vote as he was campaigning for California governor.