WASHINGTON -- The Senate voted 97-0 to confirm Anthony Kennedy as the nation's 104th member of the Supreme Court today ending a seven month battle to seat a new justice that saw two of President Reagan's choices go down to defeat.
Kennedy, whose nomination was handled with speed after the bitter, protracted fight over the president's first choice, Robert Bork, will take the oath of office Feb. 18 and will attend his first conference as justice the next day.
Not voting were Sens. Joseph Biden, D-Del., who was ill, and Al Gore, D-Tenn., and Paul Simon, D-Ill., who were campaigning for their party's presidential nomination.
Reagan, who failed twice before to fill the high court vacancy, described himself as 'extremely pleased' and said the Senate 'has not only restored to the nation a full nine-member Supreme Court; it has reaffirmed this country's commitment to the philosophy of judicial restraint.'
'Judge Kennedy represents the best traditions of America's judiciary,' Reagan said in a written statement. 'I am confident that he will serve the court and this country well.'
During an hourlong debate preceding the vote, Kennedy received almost universal praise, although some Democrats expressed concerns about his sensitivity to women's and minority rights.
'The Supreme Court rejected restrictive positions taken by Judge Kennedy in three civil rights cases,' said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. 'And his past membership in three discriminatory clubs raises questions about his sensitivity to the subtle forms that discrimination can take in contemporary America.'
Nevertheless, Kennedy said the appellate judge was well qualified to be a justice. 'After two false starts, the president heeded the advice of the Sensate and nominated a distinguished judge with mainstream views,' he said.
Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., called Kennedy 'a man of intellect, openness and fairness.' His remarks were echoed by Sen. Howell Heflin, D-Ala., who said, 'In Judge Kennedy, I believe the president has found a true conservative.'
Kennedy, 51, a conservative judge who has served since 1975 on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Sacramento, Calif., won unanimous endorsement from the Senate Judiciary Committee last week after an easy, three-day confirmation hearing before Congress's December holiday break.
He was nominated to the high court Nov. 11, but his elevation will end an historic political battle that began months earlier -- when Lewis Powell, who often gave the deciding vote to the liberal wing of the court on such issues as affirmative action and abortion, announced his retirement June 26.
Bork, 60, nominated July 1, sparked weeks of public debate and acrimonious hearings before he was rejected by the Senate 58-42 Oct. 23. He was defeated largely on his long record of speeches and judicial writings attacking high court rulings that bolstered civil rights and individual liberties.
Reagan, then urged by some of his own advisers to select Kennedy or another judge less doctrinaire than Bork, defiantly turned to Douglas Ginsburg, a Bork colleague on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
Ginsburg, nominated Oct. 29, provided an even more stinging loss to the president. The 41-year-old conservative withdrew from consideration Nov. 7 after admitting past marijuana use.
Both Bork and Ginsburg had been promoted within the administration as men who could shift the high court's balance to the right for decades. In what became a political capitulation, Reagan finally turned to the more moderate Kennedy.
Before joining the appeals court, Kennedy practiced law in Sacramento and was a legislative lobbyist for business interests. He has been criticized by some liberal colleagues and women's groups for various rulings on civil rights and for his past memberships in clubs that excluded women and minorities.
Overall, however, senators rated him closer to Powell than to Bork, who last month announced his resignation from the Washington appeals court effective Friday. Ginsburg remains on the bench.