Judge Sonia Sotomayor bio

May 26, 2009 9:37:35 PM PDT
Sonia Sotomayor's ascent to a U.S. Supreme Court nomination began in a Bronx housing project, fed by Nancy Drew, inspired by Perry Mason and encouraged by her hardworking mother. Her mother worked two jobs after coming to New York from Puerto Rico, including as a nurse at a methadone clinic after her husband died when Sotomayor was 9. She saved up and bought Sotomayor the only encyclopedia set in the neighborhood.

VOTE: How important is life experience?

She got her first taste of the law as she buried herself in Nancy Drew books, but it was an episode of Perry Mason that provided the defining moment in Sotomayor's childhood. Watching the camera settle on the judge at the end of an episode, she immediately realized "he was the most important player in that room," Sotomayor said in a 1998 interview with The Associated Press.

President Barack Obama built on her rags-to-riches story Tuesday as he nominated her to the Supreme Court, following a distinguished legal career in which she served as a prosecutor, corporate litigator, trial judge and, most recently, member of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York.

Ellen Chapnick, the dean for the Social Justice Program at Columbia Law School, said one of Sotomayor's former students at the university "called me today in tears and said today is a wonderful, wonderful day."

She said Sotomayor's touch with common people is demonstrated whenever she walks through the courthouse, connecting with the guards in the lobby or a clerical worker from another chambers with the same interest as with lawyers and judges.

Sotomayor knows how life struggles can interrupt dreams.

By time she was 8 years old, Sotomayor had begun insulin injections for juvenile diabetes. After her father died, her mother sometimes worked two jobs, but she always kept a pot of rice and beans on the stove.

The Manhattan-born Sotomayor's humble upbringing has shaped her personality - vibrant and colorful, and so different from the Bronx projects where she grew up in a home with a drab yellow kitchen.

She is a food-loving baseball buff as likely to eat a hot dog at a street corner stand as to settle in for a fancy meal at a swanky restaurant.

Her work and everything else in her life are sure to face close scrutiny in the months ahead in a process all too familiar. Her nomination to the appeals court was delayed 15 months, reportedly because of concerns by Republicans that she might someday be considered for the Supreme Court.

"I don't think anybody looked at me as a woman or as a Hispanic and said, `We're not going to appoint her because of those characteristics.' Clearly that's not what occurred," she recalled in the 1998 interview.

"But I do believe there are gender and ethnic stereotypes that propel people to assumptions about what they expected me to be," she continued. "I obviously felt that any balanced view of my work would not support some of the allegations being made."

The 54-year-old Sotomayor is a die-hard baseball fan - she grew up near Yankee Stadium and loves the Yankees - and it was baseball that provided one of the most important moments of her career: the decision as a U.S. District Court judge to issue an injunction against team owners on March 31, 1995, ending a 7½-month strike that had wiped out the World Series for the first time in 90 years.

Acknowledging the pivotal nature of her ruling, Sotomayor described how it is "when you see an outfielder backpedaling and jumping up to the wall and time stops for an instant as he jumps up and you finally figure out whether it's a home run, a double or a single off the wall or an out."

Then she scolded the owners for unfair labor practices and urged lawyers for both sides to salvage the 1995 season, reach a new labor agreement and change their attitudes.

It was classic Sotomayor. She embraces the dramatic moment as well as any of the roughly 80 judges in the lower Manhattan courthouse that has been her home since her appointment to the bench in 1992 by President George H.W. Bush.

As a district judge, she advanced First Amendment religious claims by tossing out a state prison rule banning members of a religious sect from wearing colored beads to ward off evil spirits, and by rejecting a suburban law preventing the display of a 9-foot-high menorah in a park.

In 1995, she released the suicide note of former White House aide Vincent Foster, acting on litigation brought by the Wall Street Journal under the Freedom of Information Act.

Sotomayor, who has a brother who became a doctor, presided over a civil trial in 1996 in which the family of a lawyer who died from AIDS sued the makers of the movie "Philadelphia," contending that Hollywood stole their story. The case was settled, but not before the movie with its dramatic courtroom showdowns was played for the jury in its entirety, prompting Sotomayor to caution: "I don't expect melodrama here. I don't want anybody aspiring to what they see on the screen."

Sotomayor graduated summa cum laude from Princeton, then became an editor of the Yale Law Journal at Yale Law School. She joined the Manhattan district attorney's office and the board of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund.

"She is a brilliant person whose intellect is only overshadowed by her humility, which stems from her being an ordinary person.

She's an ordinary American," said Carlos Ortiz, the chairman of the Supreme Court Committee in the Hispanic National Bar Association.

"I believe that not only Hispanics but all Americans and people around the world will after this day be more proud and respectful of the United States of America than they have ever been. That's how significant this is."

Sotomayor, who is divorced and has no children, is less affluent than many of the typical Supreme Court prospects. Though drawing a six-figure income, she lives in expensive Manhattan. Sotomayor earned $179,500 as a federal appellate judge in New York last year, plus $14,780 teaching at New York University's law school and $10,000 as a lecturer at Columbia University's law school, according to her most recent financial disclosure report.

Sotomayor owns a condominium in trendy Greenwich Village. She has had the property since at least 1998, and took out a $350,000 mortgage from JPMorgan Chase Bank last fall, the city records show.

Sotomayor refinanced and used proceeds for renovations, her office said.

Other units in the building have sold for $900,000 to $1.5 million over the past five years, city records show.

At a recent program honoring the creator of a documentary showing children who have thrived even in threatening environments, Sotomayor, her round face beaming, seemed to be enjoying the attention she was receiving as her nomination to the Supreme Court seemed likely.

In brief remarks, Sotomayor described the documentary as fabulous.

"We should applaud more frequently those who transform a lost life," Sotomayor said.

John Siffert, a New York lawyer who has been a friend and teaching partner of Sotomayor over the last 18 years, said she continues to teach inner-city children, in one case bringing a program to the courthouse that lets children prosecute Goldilocks from "The Story of the Three Bears."

"She can transcend all ages," he said. "She is the genuine article. As a result, it reaches everyone. People just get her. For someone who's this smart, intellectual-disciplined and hard working, she still gets it."

Jon O. Newman, a senior judge on the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and a former chief judge, said the appointment was the culmination of "the American dream of sheer talent triumphing and being rewarded."

He added: "She's overcome adversity growing up and made herself an enormous success based on talent and strength of character. And that's the American dream."


The Basics

  • Born June 25, 1954, in the Bronx, NY. Raised in Bronxdale housing project by parents born in Puerto Rico.
  • Graduated from Cardinal Spellman High School in 1972, from Princeton University summa cum laude in 1976 and from Yale Law School in 1979 after serving as a law journal editor.
  • Worked as assistant district attorney in Manhattan from 1979 to 1984 and as associate and then partner in New York law firm Pavia & Harcourt from 1984 to 1992.
  • Appointed U.S. district court judge in Manhattan in 1992 (by George H.W. Bush) and then U.S. appeals court judge in Manhattan in 1998 (by Bill Clinton).

    Views on the Law

  • She has said that she is acutely aware of her decisions' real-life impact. "That emotion will never leave me?humility, a deep, deep sense of humility," she told AP in a November 1998 interview about how she felt signing her first judgment of conviction, an order that sent a drug offender to prison for five years (see first item under Notable Opinions below). "And a deep, deep sense of, there but for the grace of God could I have gone and many that I have loved."
  • She has spoken often of how her early poverty and Hispanic heritage have shaped her views. "I have spent my years?in my various professional jobs not feeling completely a part of any of the worlds I inhabit," she said in a November 2002 interview with The Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education. "We educated, privileged lawyers have a professional and moral duty to represent the underrepresented in our society, to ensure that justice exists for all, both legal and economic justice."
  • Still, she seems pragmatic in her approach to judging. "I'm a down-to-earth litigator, and that's what I expect I'll be like as a judge," she told the Los Angeles Daily Journal in a September 1992 interview.

    "Once you have been a judge, you understand that whatever your personal views are upon an issue?few of us can make a decision in the abstract, because that is not the nature of judging," she said in a February 2006 interview with The Federal Lawyer.

    And lawyers generally consider her to be only slightly left of center on a politically centrist court, and certainly not a knee-jerk liberal or activist judge.

  • After the Wall Street Journal criticized her in 1998 for ruling that a Manhattan business coalition had broken the law by paying less than the minimum wage to homeless people it was trying to give work experience, Gerald Walpin, a staunch conservative and former federal prosecutor, defended her: "If they (the Journal) had read the case, they would see that she said she personally approved of the homeless program, but that as a judge she was required to apply the law as it exists?That's exactly what conservatives want: a non-activist judge who does not apply her own views but is bound by the law."

    "While she is liberal," a recent clerk for another Second Circuit judge told me, "she isn't nearly as dogmatic as some of her colleagues on the appellate bench, especially on criminal matters, which may be a reflection of her prosecutorial and district court background."

    Yet there's that pesky video on YouTube. On a panel at Duke Law School four years ago, she said, "All of the legal defense funds out there, they're looking for people with court of appeals experience, because it is, court of appeals is where policy is made," a statement sure to provoke critics of judges who allegedly legislate from the bench. "And I know, and I know this is on tape, and I should never say that, because we don't make law, I know," she continued as the audience laughed. "OK. I know. I know. I'm not promoting it, and I'm not advocating it, I'm, you know." (NOTE: SPEV has this soundbite available on S&T)

    Professional Experience.

  • Prosecutor. She spent five years as an assistant district attorney in Manhattan, working under legendary DA Robert Morgenthau and prosecuting robberies, assaults, murders, police brutality and child pornography cases. Private lawyer. She practiced for eight years at the law firm of Pavia & Harcourt representing primarily European clients like Ferrari and Fendi in intellectual property, commodities trading and similar business cases in the U.S. Judge. She was a U.S. district court judge in Manhattan for six years and has been on the U.S. Court of Appeals in Manhattan since 1998. She is active in setting policy for the appellate court, serving, for example, as a member of the Second Circuit Task Force on Gender, Racial and Ethnic Fairness in the Courts.
  • Confirmation veteran. She was nominated to the district court by the first President Bush and to the appeals court by President Clinton and has been through two, relatively uncontroversial confirmation hearings. The Senate delayed a vote on her appeals court nomination for over a year, because Republican senators did not want to enhance her chances of being appointed to the Supreme Court, according to a June 13, 1998, story in the New York Times. She was confirmed on October 3, 1998, by a 68 to 28 vote.
  • Teacher. Lecturer-in-law at Columbia Law School, teaching appellate and trial advocacy since 1999.

    Personal Background

  • Growing up. Her father was a tool-and-die maker, her mother, Celina, a nurse in a methadone clinic, and both were born in Puerto Rico. She was diagnosed with diabetes at age 8, and a year later, her father died, leaving her mother to raise a daughter and younger brother alone in the Bronxdale public housing project. Inspiration. She was inspired to become a lawyer by watching Perry Mason episodes, in which lawyers were heroes and the judge called the shots.
  • Marriage. She married Kevin Edward Noonan on August 14, 1976, shortly after she graduated from college, but they divorced in 1983 and had no children. She introduced a Peter White as her fiancée at her 1997 confirmation hearing, but we haven't yet found a record of any marriage to him. Catholic? Sotomayor attended Catholic schools, but we haven't yet confirmed that she is, in fact, Catholic. If she is, she would become the sixth Catholic justice on the current Supreme Court, a situation that some commentators, like Christopher Hitchens, have suggested will affect the court's decisions on abortion and other issues. No published decisions involving Sotomayor have turned up on abortion, and we don't yet know her position on the issue.

    Notable Opinions District Court.

  • In a 1993 drug case, threw out evidence obtained in a search because a police detective had lied to obtain the search warrant. Prosecutors agreed to a plea bargain, but at sentencing, Sotomayor criticized the severity of the five-year sentence that the federal guidelines required her to impose. She told the defendant, "The only statement I can make is, this is one more example of an abomination being committed before our sights. You do not deserve this, sir." At Sotomayor's confirmation hearing in 1997, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) grilled her about that statement, suggesting it showed disrespect for the law. Sotomayor conceded that she should not have said, "Abomination." Rich Esposito, who ferreted out the case, notes that the prosecutors who filed it strongly supported Sotomayor's appointment to the appeals court bench.
  • In 1994, struck down a state prison rule that prohibited members of a religious sect from wearing colored beads beneath their clothes to ward off evil spirits.
  • In 1995, ruled that the Freedom of Information Act required the government to release the suicide note of former White House lawyer Vincent Foster.
  • In 1995, ordered Major League Baseball owners to restore free-agent bidding, salary arbitration and other terms of the expired collective bargaining agreement, thereby prompting an end to the 232-day baseball strike. "You can't grow up in the South Bronx without knowing about baseball," she said during a hearing in the case, according to the New York Times.
  • In 1997, ruled on summary judgment that newspaper publishers had not violated copyright law by transferring the work of freelance authors to electronic databases. The Second Circuit later reversed her decision. Court of Appeals.
  • In 2005, writing for the court, struck down order preventing news media from publishing jurors' names that had been read aloud in open court during the trial of former investment banker Frank Quattrone on charges of interfering with a federal investigation into securities fraud. Charges were eventually dropped.
  • In 2006, writing for the court, upheld warrantless searches of ferry riders crossing Lake Champlain because the federal government had an interest in protecting the ferry from terrorism. Honors and Awards
  • Honorary degrees from Princeton University and Brooklyn Law School in 2001 and from Herbert L. Lehman College in 1999.


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