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U.S. Senate confirms Sotomayor for Supreme Court

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Judge Sonia Sotomayor won approval Thursday to become the first Hispanic on the U.S. Supreme Court in a Senate vote that President Barack Obama said broke another social barrier.

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The Democratic-led Senate voted largely along party lines, 68-31, to confirm Obama’s nomination of Sotomayor for a lifetime appointment to the highest U.S. court. She will be sworn in Saturday.

All the opponents were Republicans, reflecting the party’s resistance to the Democratic president on several fronts, including his bid to overhaul healthcare.

Obama, who became the first black U.S. president six months ago, made no mention of the partisan split when he spoke after the vote but said the Senate had upheld American ideals of justice, equality and opportunity.

“They’re ideals she’s fought for throughout her career, and the ideals the Senate has upheld today in breaking yet another barrier and moving us yet another step closer to a more perfect union,” Obama said at the White House.

Sotomayor, 55, a federal judge since 1992, will be the first Hispanic and the third woman to serve in the history of the 220-year-old Supreme Court.

Both parties praised her rise from a child born to Puerto Rican parents and living in poverty.

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In replacing retired Justice David Souter, Sotomayor is not expected to change the court’s ideological balance. Souter sided with the liberal wing of the court, which in recent years often issued 5-4 rulings in favour of conservatives.

The appointment nonetheless underscores an effort by Obama to move the court to the left after eight years of rightward pushing by his predecessor, Republican President George W. Bush.

In opposing Sotomayor, Republicans risk a backlash from her fellow Hispanics, the fastest growing U.S. minority. Hispanics make up 15 percent of the U.S. population and voted by a two-to-one margin for Obama in the 2008 presidential election.

But Republicans seemed unconcerned. They said many Hispanics were conservatives and more interested in such issues as jobs and the economy.

Janet Murguia of the National Council of La Raza, a major Hispanic civil rights group, said: “This vote will matter -- and it will be long remembered.”

Democrats hailed Sotomayor as fair-minded, but Republicans charged she lacked impartiality. Critics had zeroed in on her past comments that a “wise Latina” woman might reach a better decision than a white man.

At her confirmation hearing, Sotomayor offered no apology for the remarks. She said a jurist had to guard against internal prejudice.

The only senator who did not take part in the confirmation vote was Democrat Edward Kennedy, who has spent much of the year away from Capitol Hill, battling brain cancer.

Additional reporting by Andy Sullivan, editing by Howard Goller