WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama's nominee Sonia Sotomayor won the backing of the Senate Judiciary committee on Tuesday, all but ensuring she will become the first Hispanic justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.
The panel voted 13 to 6 to confirm Sotomayor even though several committee members complained the approval process prevented nominees from stating their true views on controversial issues.
One Republican joined all 12 Democrats to confirm the 55-year-old who has been a federal judge for 17 years.
The Democratic-controlled full Senate seems certain to give Sotomayor its final approval before beginning a month-long recess on August 7 so she can join the nine-member court before it begins a special September session.
She is not expected to change the court's ideological balance, replacing retiring Justice David Souter as one of four liberals on the court who face five conservatives led by Chief Justice John Roberts.
Sotomayor was Obama's first Supreme Court nominee, though she will not likely be his last. With three of the other eight justices in their 70s and John Paul Stevens at 89, Obama might have a chance to make more of the lifetime appointments.
Judge Sotomayor is well qualified. She has the highest rating by the American Bar Association, said chairman Patrick Leahy before casting his vote. She has administered justice without favoring one group of persons over another.
Six of the committee's Republicans disagreed, saying they feared her rulings might be biased. They focused on some of her speeches in which she appeared to say that ethnicity and gender play a role in judicial decisions.
In speech after speech, year after year, Judge Sotomayor set forth a fully formed ... judicial philosophy that conflicts with the great American tradition of blind justice and fidelity to the law as written, said Senator Jeff Sessions, the senior Republican on the committee.
Several senators questioned the utility of the hearing process since judicial nominees often deflect questions about divisive issues like abortion, gun rights and gay marriage.
Sotomayor followed tradition and was very cautious about the controversial topics, saying it was not appropriate as they might come before her on the Supreme Court.
Conservatives had voiced fears that Sotomayor -- the daughter of Puerto Rican parents who was raised in the Bronx borough of New York and educated at Princeton and Yale --- was a judicial activist eager to imprint the high court with Obama's liberal agenda.
But in her four days of testimony, Sotomayor calmly parried Republican attempts to depict her as too biased for the top U.S. court.
Senator Lindsey Graham was the only Republican to vote for Sotomayor and he urged Republicans look at qualifications and the fact that she was chosen by a Democratic president.
She's of good character ... she was extremely well qualified, said Graham, noting that Sotomayor was left of center but certainly in the mainstream.
She can be no worse than (Justice David) Souter, he said, referring to the retired justice whose seat Sotomayor would fill. Souter was nominated by Republican President George Bush in 1990 but proved to be far more liberal than expected.
There is not going to be a major shift in the balance of power here, Graham said. I have not seen this 'activist' that we all dread. She would be only the third woman ever to serve on the court.
(Additional reporting by Andrew Quinn, Editing by Howard Goller)