A first-generation American, Sonia Sotomayor became the first Latina to serve on the Supreme Court. Joining the court in 2009, she played a key role in upholding Obamacare in 2015. She was known for being outspoken yet thoughtful as she continued to serve her second decade on the court in the 2020s.
Sotomayor's parents, Juan and Celina, moved from Puerto Rico during World War II. They met in New York, married, and lived in the Bronx housing projects where they had Sotomayor and her younger brother, Juan Jr. Her 42-year-old father, a tool-and-die maker with a third-grade education, was an alcoholic who died when she was nine. Her mother raised the two children alone on her salary from Prospect Hospital, insisting her offspring excel in school and become fluent in English, something Sotomayor's father had never done. She studied and worked diligently from the set of encyclopedias her mother purchased--the only set of encyclopedias in the housing project--trying to master the language of her birth country.
Like many children do, Sotomayor dreamed of what she wanted to be when she grew up. But unlike most children, her life purpose became clear very early in life. An avid reader of the Nancy Drew book series, she first focused on the detective side of the law, but because she learned she had Type 1 diabetes at age eight, young Sotomayor was told that such work would not be available to her. So, her interest switched to law. In watching Perry Mason, Sotomayor further decided that the judge, the person who could dismiss a case against an innocent person, was the best role of all. She told the American Bar Association, "Once I focused on becoming a lawyer, I never deviated from that goal."
Celina was eventually able to move her family out of the projects to Co-Op City, where the door was always open for the children's friends, and where socially aware debates about Vietnam were as common a topic as typical teenager gossip. During high school, Sotomayor was well-liked and already a leader and builder of bridges between the different ethnicities at the school. A former schoolmate told the New York Times, "she was irrepressible, very popular, very bright, very dynamic. She wasn't overbearing about it, but you knew she was in the room."
Sotomayor graduated as valedictorian of the Roman Catholic Cardinal Spellman High School in 1972 and went on to major in history at Princeton University, which was nearly all white and all male, having only recently begun admitting women. At the time, none of the faculty or administration was Hispanic. Further, freshman Sotomayor did not do well on her first paper, so she proactively sought out even more help with language and writing skills, dedicating herself to her studies as her mother had always expected her to do. In fact, she earned a reputation as a "grind," according to a former classmate in Time, spending all her time--when not in class or volunteering with psychiatric Latino patients at the Trenton hospital--studying at the library "with a casebook under her arm."
Student Leader at Princeton
In her sophomore year at Princeton, Sotomayor emerged as a student leader, identifying herself firmly with the culture of her family ancestry. She was active in Latino student groups--the Acción Puertorriqueña student organization, which promoted the causes of Puerto Rican students, particularly recruited her--eventually filing a formal complaint with the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare with Acción Puertorriqueña against Princeton for its discriminatory practices. She was also outspoken against police brutality in general and the harassment toward membrs of the LGBTQIA+ community in particular. Sotomayor was instrumental in designing a course examining the historical, political, and social problems of Puerto Rico, a topic that became her 150-plus-page senior thesis.
Sotomayor graduated from Princeton University summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa in 1976. She was presented with the top undergraduate award, the Pyne Prize, for leadership and scholarship excellence. Despite the struggles she had during her undergraduate years, ties to her alma mater would remain strong throughout her life. In later years, Princeton would confer an honorary law degree on Sotomayor, as would Brooklyn Law School and Herbert H. Lehman College, and she would serve on the Princeton Board of Trustees.
She went on to Yale Law School and wrote for the Yale Law Journal. One notable piece focused closely on the question of statehood or independence for Puerto Rico. A former journal colleague told Time "she wasn't advocating for or against a particular position on statehood. She was carefully parsing out the legal questions." The attention to detail and close examination of legal questions would stay with Sotomayor her whole career. Her law degree was conferred in 1979, and she passed the bar the following year.
Chose Public Service
After Yale, she characteristically chose the public service sector in which to practice, serving as a New York assistant district attorney in Manhattan. Her court cases showcased the darkest parts of society: child pornography, murder, and police brutality, for example. She told the American Bar Association, "My work ran the gamut of criminal activity. It was wonderful training for a lawyer."
Of her early years as an attorney, Sotomayor told Sheryl Gay Stolberg of the New York Times that the "low-grade" crimes were difficult, because there were so many gray areas in poverty and environment. Felonies, however, were different. "Once I started doing felonies, it became less hard. 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."
Sotomayor remained with the district attorney's office under Robert Morgenthau until 1984, when she left to work in private practice at Pavia & Harcourt, eventually making partner at the intellectual property firm. Her casework there focused particularly on copyright and trademark issues, notably with designer Fendi and seized merchandise from U.S. Customs. Although her salary increased with her responsibility and importance, she told the New York Times' Jan Hoffman that "I've never wanted to get adjusted to my income because I knew I wanted to go back to public service."
During these years, she remained committed to public service and pro bono work, serving on the New York City Campaign Finance Board; the State of New York Mortgage Agency, which provided coverage for low-income housing for AIDS patients in hospice; and the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund board. This work caught the attention of the venerable senators Ted Kennedy and Daniel Moynihan and led to her first appointment to the bench.
First Experience as Judge
Nominated for the position of U.S. District Court Judge for the Southern District of New York City by President George H.W. Bush, she was unanimously confirmed in August of 1992, the youngest judge on the court and the first person of Hispanic descent. Sotomayor had not even considered applying given her age, but her colleague at Pavia & Harcourt insisted that she should do so. Notable cases she adjudicated included various religious liberties decisions, payment of minimum wage to homeless workers, and ending the 1995 baseball strike. Six years later, Sotomayor joined the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, a position for which President Bill Clinton nominated her; she was confirmed by a two-to-one vote after a year-long delay.
In 1998 Sotomayor joined the faculty at New York University School of Law, and the following year, she joined the faculty at Columbia Law School. Her teaching was in an adjunct capacity, as she never wavered from her commitment to the practice of law. The American Bar Association quoted her as stating that the profession "is perhaps the most diverse, eclectic exposure to life that you can receive. People come to you with their problems, and their cases cover a wide range of issues. For you to be able to practice law with the vision it requires, you have to be a very well-rounded person because whatever happens out in the real world, whether it involves business or family or technology, usually finds its way into the courtroom."
She told Hoffman of the New York Times that a good judge is in control, able to quickly move a case forward. "I'm a down-to-earth litigator.... I'm not going to be able to spend much time on lofty ideals. I don't lose sight of the fact that they're important, but I also don't lose sight that 95 percent of the cases before most judges are fairly mundane. The cases that shake the world don't come along every day. But the world of the litigants is shaken by the existence of their case, and I don't lose sight of that, either." Sotomayor was described by supporters and critics alike as a judge with a solid legal mind, writing consistently good and clear opinions from the bench. She was nevertheless not unanimously lauded for her manner, which could be seen as either no-nonsense or brusque and even rude, depending on the viewpoint.
Seated on the Supreme Court
Nominated as the next Supreme Court Justice by President Barack Obama, she was confirmed in August of 2009 by a vote of 68 to 31. The first Hispanic woman on the Court, Sotomayor's historic confirmation represented an important step for the underserved Latino population, a cause that had been near and dear to Sotomayor's heart since her youth. She told Hoffman of the New York Times that after her confirmation to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, she received many letters from Hispanics at all societal levels, supporting and encouraging her. "I hope there's some greater comfort about the system to Hispanics because I'm there."
Sotomayor was sworn in August 6, 2009, as the 111th judge to the highest court in the United States by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. Sotomayor's elderly mother held the Bible. This ceremony was the first Supreme Court swearing-in broadcast on live television.
Her marriage to high school sweetheart Kevin Noonan after graduation from Princeton in 1976 ended in divorce in 1983; they did not have children. A former three-and-a-half pack a day smoker, she checked into a residential treatment program for five days to quit. In her free time she said she worked out several times a week on the treadmill and enjoyed performances, whether theater or ballet. She also cheered on her beloved Yankees from the bleachers. In addition to the American Bar Association, the Puerto Rican Bar Association, the Hispanic National Bar Association, and the New York Women's Bar Association, her memberships also include the Association of Judges of Hispanic Heritage and the National Council of La Raza.
Stolbert, the reporter for the New York Times, recalled a speech Sotomayor gave in 2001. "Each day on the bench I learn something new about the judicial process and about being a professional Latina woman in a world that sometimes looks at me with suspicion. I can and do aspire to be greater than the sum total of my experiences but I accept my limitations. I willingly accept that we who judge must not deny the differences resulting from experience and heritage, but attempt, as the Supreme Court suggests, continuously to judge when those opinions, sympathies, and prejudices are appropriate."
In June of 2010, the Bronxdale Houses development where Sotomayor grew up was renamed in her honor. It was the first time a New York City Housing Authority development had been named in honor of a living former resident. In January of 2013, Alfred A. Knopf published Sotomayor's memoir, My Beloved World. The work in was an immediate New York Times best seller, with 38,000 hardcover copies sold in the first week. The tome deals with her childhood, education, and early career but not her Supreme Court experiences. In the work the justice describes her regret at not having children and defends affirmative action. In April of 2014, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a voter-approved ban on affirmative action in Michigan, Sotomayor not only dissented, but also read her dissent aloud from the bench as "a signal of how fiercely someone believes that the Court is wrong." Sotomayor explained after the decision that "The Constitution does not protect racial minorities from political defeat. But neither does it give the majority free rein to erect selective barriers against racial minorities."
In 2015, Sotomayor voted in favor of gay marriage in the landmark case Obergefell v. Hodges. With a narrow 5-4 vote, her side secured the majority. She concurred with the opinion of Justice Anthony Kennedy, who argued that the constitution guarantees gay and lesbian people with equal dignity and liberty, and that bans on gay marriage deny them that right. In subsequent rulings, Sotomayor continued to speak out over matters of race and sexuality and promote the interests of minority groups. She made her convictions clear during cases such as Sessions v. Dimaya and Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission in 2018.
While continuing to serve on the court, Sotomayor published two more books in 2018. Both were based on My Beloved World. The Beloved World of Sonia Sotomayor was an adaptation of the memoir targeted at tween readers. Turning Pages: My Life Story was for younger children and included illustrations.
As a Supreme Court justice, Sotomayor continued to write opinions and dissents on civil rights, private rights, and criminal justice. In 2018, Sotomayor composed a widely praised, 28-page dissent in the case that upheld President Donald Trump's ban on travel from certain countries with Muslim majorities into the United States. She argued Trump's asylum ban represented the overturn of the United States' longstanding offer of safe refuge to all. In the 2020 term, Sotomayor wrote a scathing dissent, joined by other liberal judges on the court, when the Supreme Court declined to overturn a federal appeals court decision regarding the eligibility of millions of felons in Florida to participate in elections. Though voters in Florida gave felons back the right to vote, the state added the requirement that felons must have paid all fines and fees before being allowed to vote. By declining to take the case, the Supreme Court held up these requirements.
Sotomayor, along with her U.S. Supreme Court colleague Ruth Bader Ginsburg, often ended up bearing the brunt of Trump's efforts to question the Court's legitimacy, since they often ruled against him in cases. Trump demanded those two jurists recuse themselves from all cases involving him. In 2020, Ginsburg passed away, leaving Sotomayor and her colleagues Elena Kagan and Steven Breyer the only liberal voices on the Supreme Court. In September 2020 Trump nominated conservative Amy Coney Barrett as Ginsburg's replacement, which could have major repercussions for future cases that come before the court, since conservatives would have a 6-3 majority.
Throughout her time on the court, Sotomayor was known for being a public figure--making at least 184 appearances through mid-2019--and was commonly called "The People's Justice." Describing her and her work, Richard Wolf of USA Today wrote, "After ten years on the Supreme Court, Sotomayor, 65, is not only its most outspoken questioner ... but its most frequent public speaker and most prolific author. Her voice, in all its forms, has become the liberal conscience on a conservative court, one that speaks out in defense of minorities, immigrants, criminal defendants and death row inmates." Sotomayor serves asa role model for those that are of Hispanic descent, especially those living in poverty.
Born June 25, 1954, in New York, NY; daughter of Juan (a welder) and Celina (a nurse) Sotomayor; married Kevin E. Noonan, 1976 (divorced, 1983). Education: Princeton University, history, 1976; Yale Law School, J.D., 1979. Addresses: Office--Supreme Court of the United States, One First Street, NE, Washington, DC 20543.
Attorney, Manhattan district attorney's office, 1979-84; attorney and later partner in private practice, Pavia & Harcourt, 1984-92; U.S. District Court Judge for the Southern District of New York City, 1992-98; judge, Second Circuit Court of Appeals, 1998-2009; adjunct professor, New York University School of Law, 1998-2007; adjunct lecturer, Columbia University, 1999--; U.S. Supreme Court Justice, 2009--; author, 2013--.
Member: Board of trustees, Princeton; finance board, New York City Campaign; State of New York Mortgage Agency; board, Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund; American Bar Association; Puerto Rican Bar Association; Hispanic National Bar Association; New York Women's Bar Association; Association of Judges of Hispanic Heritage; National Council of La Raza.
Pyne Prize, Princeton University, 1976.
New York Times, September 25, 1992, p. B16; May 27, 2009; May 28, 2009.
Time, June 8, 2009, p. 24.
Washington Post, August 29, 2009.
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"Supreme Court Deals Blow to Felons in Florida Seeking to Regain the Right to Vote," Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/supreme-court-deals-blow-to-felons-in-florida-seeking-to-regain-the-right-to-vote/2020/07/16/2ede827c-c5dd-11ea-a99f-3bbdffb1af38_story.html (August 24, 2020).
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