August 5, 2010 / 7:58 PM / 9 years ago

UPDATE 3-U.S. Senate approves Obama top court nominee Kagan

* Vote largely along partisan lines

* Kagan unlikely to change court’s balance of power

* Nomination overshadowed by Gulf of Mexico oil spill

(Adds Obama comments, Kagan watching the vote)

By James Vicini

WASHINGTON, Aug 5 (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama’s nomination of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court won Senate approval on Thursday, his second appointment to the court that decides abortion, death penalty and other contentious cases.

The Democratic-led Senate voted largely along party lines, 63-37, to confirm the former Harvard Law School dean as the fourth female justice in U.S. history and the 112th high court member.

Kagan was Obama’s solicitor general, arguing government cases before the Supreme Court, when he named her in May as his choice to replace the retiring liberal Justice John Paul Stevens.

The 50-year-old Kagan, who will be the third woman on the current court, is not expected to change the ideological balance of power on the closely divided panel, which for years has been dominated by a 5-4 conservative majority.

In Chicago, Obama expressed confidence that Kagan will be an outstanding justice.

“And I am proud also of the history we are making with her appointment. For nearly two centuries there wasn’t a single woman on our nation’s highest court. When Elena takes her seat on that bench, for the first time in our history there will be three women,” he said.

“Today’s vote wasn’t just an affirmation of Elena’s intellect and accomplishment, it was also an affirmation of her character and her temperament, her open-mindedness and even-handedness,” Obama said.

All Democratic senators but one voted for her, two independent senators voted for her and five Republicans voted for her. All other Republican senators opposed her nomination.

OBAMA’S JUDICIAL LEGACY

Kagan becomes Obama’s second lifetime appointee on the nine-member Supreme Court, allowing him to reshape the court and leave a judicial legacy that could last long after he leaves office.

U.S. appeals court Judge Sonia Sotomayor was confirmed last year by a 68-31 vote as the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice.

The two appointments underscore an effort by Obama to move the court to the left after Republican President George W. Bush nominated a pair of conservative judges to the bench.

Kagan’s nomination proved to be less contentious than expected and was largely overshadowed in the Senate by the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and concerns over the sluggish U.S. economy.

The three days of Senate debate that ended Thursday often reflected partisan differences ahead of the congressional elections in November, when one-third of the Senate and the entire House of Representatives will be up for re-election.

Democratic senators praised Kagan for her legal intellect, her ability to build consensus, for bringing a fresh perspective to the court and for being fair-minded. It will be the first time for the court to have three female justices.

Republican senators said Kagan, a White House lawyer during Bill Clinton’s presidency, seemed driven more by politics than the law and lacked judicial experience. She becomes the first justice in nearly 40 years who had never been a judge.

Kagan will be sworn in on Saturday, a Supreme Court spokeswoman said. The court is in recess until October, when it will return to the bench for a new term to hear disputes on immigration, violent videos and other cases.

A source familiar with the matter said Kagan watched the vote on television with her Justice Department colleagues in the solicitor general’s conference room. (Additional reporting by Rick Cowan, Jeremy Pelofsky, Matt Spetalnick and Alister Bull; Editing by Stacey Joyce and Eric Walsh) (For more information about cases the court will hear in its next term, click [ID:nN05173351]. And for details about other Senate confirmation votes, click [ID:nN05172961])

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