Sonia Sotomayor – the fearless federal trial court judge who saved major league baseball from a ruinous 1995 strike – managed an easy win in her confirmation to the United States Supreme Court in 2009. In cruising to a 68-31 confirmation vote in the Senate, largely along party lines, Sotomayor entered the record book as the first Hispanic and the third woman to serve on the High Court.
As President Barack Obama's first pick to the Court to replace the retiring Justice David H. Souter, Sotomayor offered a compelling personal story. Raised by her widowed mother in a Bronx, New York housing project, Sotomayor proved a stand-out student and earned an opportunity to attend Princeton University. She graduated summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, went on to Yale Law School, and then spent periods working for the Manhattan district attorney and in private practice commercial law. In 1992, the Bush Administration appointed Sotomayor—a life-long Democrat – to a federal district court thanks to the efforts of Democratic Senator Daniel Moynihan. In 1997, Moynihan again supported Sotomayor, this time securing her appointment to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit under the Clinton administration.
Sotomayor's rise from poverty and success in law made her a judge immediately attractive to the Obama administration. While campaigning for the presidency in 2008, then Senator Obama articulated his views on the judicial appointments he would make as president. Given his background as a law professor at the University of Chicago, Obama noted that a small percentage of difficult cases required judges who had not only legal mastery, but also a "depth and breadth" of empathy to correctly view "how the world works." Political conservatives voiced strong objections, viewing "empathy" as a euphemistic excuse to ignore legal precedent in favor of liberal policy. However, Sotomayor's supporters countered that her empathy simply referred to the valuable wisdom she gained from challenging life experiences. Most importantly, this meant her ability to understand how another person feels without accepting or rejecting the appropriateness of that feeling.
President Obama's nomination of Judge Sotomayor became a clarion call to muster conservative opposition by pouncing on the need for empathy. But with Senate control in Democratic hands, the outcome was never seriously in doubt. Sotomayor proved adept at saying or conceding nothing that would reveal her honest preferences. In baseball parlance, she managed to minimize the strike zone while fouling away pitches that might have proved damaging. She was confirmed by the Senate on August 6 and took the oaths of office administered by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. on August 8, 2009.
Sonia Sotomayor was born in the Bronx on June 25, 1954 to Juan Sotomayor and Celina Baez, both native Puerto Ricans. Her father worked in manual labor and her mother was a nurse. They met and married in America during World War II while Celina was working in the Women's Army Corps, the program that facilitated her emigration. Following a few re-locations after the war, they settled in the Bronx borough of New York City. The family took residence in the Bronxdale Houses, one of the most coveted complexes in the city-owned housing projects. These were built in to order provide affordable housing to working-class families. The complex lacked the gang violence and alarming disrepair popularly associated with "the projects," and instead boasted of clean grounds, a diverse working-class community, and apartments that Sotomayor called "spacious, pristine, white." She described Bronxdale as a place with "all sorts of people, every one of them with problems, and each group with a different response, different methods of survival, different reactions to the adversity they were facing." Out of this myriad of challenges, she saw "kids making choices," either for good or bad.
The Sotomayor family possessed the fighting pioneer spirit that comes naturally to immigrants, while also retaining a distinctly Puerto Rican heritage. Since her father only spoke Spanish, Sotomayor did not learn to speak English fluently until he passed away when she was nine. Following his death, Celina began working six-day weeks as a nurse to support the family, raising Sonia and her brother Juan alone. Sharing with many immigrant Puerto Ricans the suspicion that public schools were rowdy and dangerous, Celina managed to send both the kids to private Catholic school. At one point, she saved the little money she had to buy Sonia an encyclopedia set, which she became known for throughout Bronxdale. Her brother Juan, now a successful physician, fondly recalls the high ambitions he and his sister held while still surrounded by poverty. "Our mother instilled those dreams in us," he said. Sonia reflects similarly on her specific dream: "I was going to college and I was going to become an attorney, and I knew that when I was 10." Sotomayor conceived the idea of becoming an attorney when watching an episode from the legal drama "Perry Mason." When a prosecutor on the show stated that serving justice meant losing cases when the defendant was innocent, Sotomayor took note. "I noticed that Perry Mason was involved in a lot of the same kinds of investigative work that I had been fascinated with reading Nancy Drew, so I decided to become a lawyer," she stated. With this goal already in mind, she studied diligently while attending Cardinal Spellman High School. She acquired her reputation as a bookish student at this early stage of her academic career, but also involved herself heavily in a variety of extracurricular activities.
Through a proactive approach to education and self-enforced discipline, she began meriting distinctions and carving out a path for her future. In 1972, she graduated valedictorian of her class. More importantly, her early success had earned her a scholarship to study at Princeton University, where she began attending the next year. Upon arrival at the Princeton campus, Sotomayor found the environment like nothing she had ever experienced. Surrounded by circles of academic elites and peers who grew up with privileges she could only imagine, she expressed that she felt like a "visitor landing in an alien country." Sotomayor's other-worldly confrontation with the Ivy League school motivated her to earn her place squarely, which she set about accomplishing through an unwavering devotion to her studies. One columnist summed up her reputation at Princeton as "a fanatically driven worker, who lived on caffeine and cigarettes."
At Princeton, she revealed another important dimension to her personality—detached pensiveness. Specifically, she preferred casual relationship over emotional engagement. She was a careful observer who put much thought into the affiliations she would make. She joined student groups selectively—bearing in mind the implications of these affiliations—but did not hesitate once committed to outwardly expressing a belief. When serving as a co-chairman of the Puerto Rican activist group Accioncion Puertorriquena, she accused the Princeton administration of discriminating against Puerto Ricans in hiring. She insisted that this was part of a broader effort "to relegate an important cultural sector of the population to oblivion." While frank, she defied bitterness and was generally viewed as warm-hearted rather than resentful. In support of this work for Puerto Rican rights, she crafted an impressive senior thesis on the life of the famed Puerto Rican Luis Munoz Marin, confirming that for her activism was a far second to scholarship.
In 1976, Sotomayor graduated summa cum laude from Princeton with her bachelor's degree in history, gaining election into Phi Beta Kappa along the way. She also won the prestigious M. Taylor Pyne Honor Prize, which recognized her as the senior who best exhibited a scholastic spirit, strong character, and the ability to lead effectively. Before continuing to Yale Law School the next year in pursuit of her J.D., she wed her high school boyfriend, Kevin Noonan (the two would divorce seven years later).
At Yale she began to display the thought processes that would shape her legal mind. Her personal quiescence remained, but her intellectual assertiveness strengthened. She published a noteworthy article on Puerto Rico's right to offshore minerals and was known for always making persuasive arguments. She co-chaired the Latin American and Native American Students Association and worked as an editor for the Yale Law Journal. Many classmates testified to her ability to see an argument as an independent entity, which should be worked through properly before reaching a conclusion. "She wanted the argument to work," remembered Stephen Carter, a Yale classmate. "She would tell you why she thought something, and the 'why' never had anything to do with where she came from."
Her interest in becoming a litigator strengthened as she increasingly devoted herself to the thought-processes of law, and by the time of her graduation in 1979 her mind was settled. The legendary Manhattan district attorney Robert Morgenthau hired 25-year-old Sotomayor to work in his office in 1979, thanks to the recommendation of Jose Cabranes, a professor at Yale Law. As an assistant district attorney, Sotomayor began work in a trial unit that prosecuted everything from petty crimes to homicides. She established herself early as an imposing prosecutor who, despite her young age, would not get pushed around. According to Morgenthau, "some of the judges like to push around young assistants and get them to dispose of cases." However, he recalls, "no one pushed around Sonia Sotomayor; she stood up to the judges, in an appropriate way."
A massive wave of crime had plagued New York City in the 1980s, and prosecuting for the city in the heart of Manhattan was trial by fire for a young criminal attorney. She helped put some of the most heinous criminals behind bars and triumphed in high-profile cases, including the famous Tarzan murder case and a major child pornography bust. Perhaps more impressively, she gave equal attention to the cases with less hype.
During confirmation hearings for Sotomayor, Morgenthau stated that she "understood that every case is important to the victim and appropriately gave undivided attention to the proper disposition of all of them." She worked meticulously in an environment pressuring her to cut corners, and always sacrificed her own time instead of the quality of her work. The Manhattan office was no place to be soft on crime, and Sotomayor's generally liberal views did not impede her stiff view on justice. While sympathizing with petty criminals whose actions "could be the product of the environment and of poverty," she never let this derail her from her work. She had an easier time coping with violent crime. "No matter how liberal I am, I'm still outraged by crimes of violence. Regardless of whether I can sympathize with the causes that lead these individuals to do these crimes, the effects are outrageous," she said.
In 1984, Sotomayor moved into private practice with the New York City law firm of Pavia & Harcourt, which focused in business and corporate law. According to George M. Pavia, the partner who hired her, "she's an excellent lawyer, a careful preparer of cases, liberal, but not doctrinaire, not wild-eyed. Sotomayor excelled in her work on intellectual property rights and copyright litigation and made partner in 1988.
On the recommendation of the Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the George H. W. Bush administration nominated Sotomayor to the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York on November 27, 1991. Her appointment resulted from a judge-trading scheme congressional Democrats had worked out with the White House in order to confirm the preferred judges of each party. After a year-long delay, the Senate confirmed her on August 11, 1992. While sitting on the district court, she faced mostly noncontroversial cases on topics ranging from drug smuggling to securities fraud. She gained fame as the judge who "saved" Major League Baseball with her strike-ending decision in Silverman v. Major League Baseball Player Relations Committee, Inc. In another widely read decision, she supported the Wall Street Journal's right to print a controversial suicide note left by Clinton White House deputy counsel Vince Foster, despite his family's claim to privacy. Her majority opinion in Castle Rock Entertainment, Inc. v. Carol Publishing Group finding a copyright infringement on material from the television show Seinfeld became a standard for applying the fair use doctrine. In Tasini v. New York Times, Sotomayor ruled against freelance journalists claiming that the New York Times wrongfully published their material on the electronic database LexisNexis. This was her first decision reversed by the Supreme Court.
On another recommendation from Moynihan, President Bill Clinton nominated Sotomayor to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit on June 25, 1997. Republicans were concerned she would become Clinton's first Supreme Court nominee and stalled her confirmation vote for over a year. However, with the help of Alfonse D'Amato, a Republican Senator from New York, she was confirmed by a 67-29-2 vote on October 2, 1998.
During her next decade on the Second Circuit, Sotomayor would hear more than 3000 cases and write about 380 majority opinions. Sotomayor showed herself to be moderate jurist who wrote sound opinions and was not afraid to speak her mind from the bench. Studies of her opinions found her leaning conservative in criminal cases and leaning liberal when dissenting. Her carefully worded, technical writing did not grab for media attention and helped her keep a low profile. However, the lawyers who argued before her knew her well, remembering vividly how she often confronted them sharply from the bench. Some of them used words like "bully," "nasty" and a "terror" to describe her.
She did not directly face hot-button issues such as abortion and gay rights, but did lay the groundwork for a turbulent confirmation process by writing three opinions that were later overturned by the Supreme Court. First, her overturned 2000 decision in Malesko v. Correctional Services Corporation overextended the ability of inmates in halfway houses to sue. Second, her 2007 decision in Riverkeeper Inc. v. United States Environmental Protection Agency applied an environmental "best technology" rule in a manner more costly to power plant owners than the EPA intended. Her third-overturned decision, the 2008 affirmative action case Ricci v. DeStefano, proved most controversial. She supported the decision by the city of New Haven, Connecticut to reject a lawsuit filed by white firefighters claiming racial discrimination. The city had denied them promotions because there were no black firemen eligible for advancement along with them. Sotomayor supported the deferral of promotions in hopes of promoting a more racially diverse group, but the Supreme Court ruled that this violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
On the other hand, she also delivered opinions disagreeable to liberals. In Center for Reproductive Law and Policy v. Bush, Sotomayor held that the Bush administration did not have to give aid to foreign organizations offering abortions. In another case, U.S. v. Falso, she favored government power over citizens' rights by using a generous application of the "good faith exception" to justify a police search lacking "probable cause." Her record as a judge certainly does not cast her as a package-deal liberal, but on several occasions she has indicated inclinations to both "judicial activism" and the "empathy" standard advocated by President Barack Obama. During her confirmation to the Second Circuit, Sotomayor testified that "judges must be extraordinarily sensitive to the impact of their decisions." She also calls Justice Benjamin Cardozo her judicial hero. In a 2001 speech at the University of California at Berkeley, Sotomayor stated, "I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experience would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life."
Although speculation about the Obama administration appointing Sotomayor began when Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, it was David Souter's prompt retirement in early 2009 that opened a slot. Amid expectations that President Obama would nominate a judge with a "common touch" and empathy, Sotomayor was quickly on the short list. He nominated Sotomayor on May 26, 2009 and she prepared for the confirmation process before a Senate dominated by Democrats. During confirmation hearings, she sturdily dismissed accusations of unbridled judicial activism and reaffirmed her devotion to the precepts of precedent and legal reasoning. In what Democrats called an "easy one," the Senate confirmed her on August 6, 2009 on a 68-31 vote divided mostly along party lines. Hispanics celebrated her appointment to the Supreme Court as a first, and the working-class crowd in the Bronx hailed the success of one of their own.
Sotomayor's ascent to success did not come from the empathy others showed her, but rather the tenacity and diligence she showed them. Her career as a judge, likewise, emphasized not empathy, but the ruggedness, personal sacrifice, and intellectual concentration that will make her an exciting new voice on the Supreme Court.
|Clerk||Law School||Terms Clerked|
|Amy Mason Saharia||Duke (2005)||2010|
|Eloise Pasachoff||Harvard (2004)||2009|
|Thomas S. Lue||Harvard (2005)||2010|
|Abby M. Mollen||Northwestern (2008)||2010|
|Jeremy C. Marwell||NYU (2006)||2009|
|Kevin P. Arlyck||NYU (2008)||2010|
|Charlotte Taylor||NYU (2008)|
|Lindsey Powell||Stanford (2007)||2009|
|Robert M. Yablon||Yale (2006)||2009|