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Confirmation Votes Not Always Partisan

The Senate will confirm today President Obama's first Supreme Court nominee, Sonia Sotomayor, mostly with the votes of Democrats. She'll fill the seat Justice David Souter vacated when he retired this summer. Not all recent Supreme Court confirmation votes have been so partisan.

USA TODAY's Kathy Kiely looks at the politics behind the confirmations of the Supreme Court justices Sotomayor will join:

Associate Justice John Paul Stevens
Confirmed: 98-0, Dec. 17, 1975

The lowdown: Stevens, 89, is the court's senior member and leader of the liberal wing, even though he was appointed by a Republican, President Ford.

Associate Justice Antonin Scalia
Confirmed: 98-0, Sept. 17, 1986

The lowdown: Even diehard Democrats had no problems voting for Scalia when President Reagan tapped the brainy conservative as the first Italian-American justice. He replaced fellow conservative William Rehnquist as an associate justice, and Rehnquist became the court's chief justice.

Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy
Confirmed: 97-0, Feb. 3, 1988

The lowdown: Kennedy's overwhelming confirmation came after a bitter battle in which the Senate rejected Reagan's nomination of Robert Bork - a staunch conservative who made no effort to hide his views - to replace the centrist Justice Lewis Powell. Mindful of Bork's experience, nominees ever since have been far more circumspect during their hearings. Kennedy is the swing vote on many 5-4 court decisions.

Associate Justice Clarence Thomas
Confirmed: 52-48, Oct. 15, 1991

The lowdown: Thomas, who replaced civil rights icon Thurgood Marshall, was confirmed after an X-rated confirmation hearing in which a former Thomas subordinate provided graphic descriptions of his alleged sexual harassment. The outcry over the Senate Judiciary Committee's prosecutorial treatment of Thomas' accuser, Anita Hill, led to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, joining the previously all-male committee in the next Congress.

Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Confirmed: 96-3, Aug. 3, 1993

The lowdown: Ginsburg, a liberal who frequently socializes with her ideological opposite, Scalia, won quick approval when President Clinton appointed her to become the high court's second female member.

Associate Justice Stephen Breyer
Confirmed: 87-9, July 29, 1994

The lowdown: Breyer was well known to the senators who would have the biggest say in his confirmation because he had worked for Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., on the Judiciary Committee. Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, the top-ranking Republican on the panel at the time, said he recommended Breyer to Clinton as a nominee who could win bipartisan support.

Chief Justice John Roberts
Confirmed: 78-22, Sept. 29, 2005

The lowdown: Roberts was confirmed with the votes of half the 44 Democrats then in the Senate, a reflection of their belief that his appointment by President George W. Bush to the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist's seat would not significantly alter the high court's philosophical balance. Among Democrats voting no: Barack Obama, who praised Roberts as "qualified" and "personally decent" but said he was troubled by the nominee's "overarching political philosophy."

Associate Justice Samuel Alito
Confirmed: 58-42, Jan. 31, 2006

The lowdown: Alito's confirmation came a few months after Roberts', but the vote was much more partisan because he was replacing Sandra Day O'Connor, then the key swing vote on the high court. Alito's opponents, led by top Judiciary Committee Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont, rightly predicted that the appointment of a conservative to replace O'Connor would tilt the court rightward. Obama also voted against Alito.

Vacant seat
Last held by Associate Justice David Souter

Confirmed: 90-9, Oct. 2, 1990

The lowdown:@ "A home run for conservatives" is how then-White House chief of staff John Sununu described Souter when President George H.W. Bush nominated him. Souter turned into a reliable vote for liberals instead, siding with them on issues such as abortion and separation of church and state. "My vote has come back to haunt me again and again," said Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa.

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