Sonia Sotomayor (born 1954) is the first American of Hispanic descent to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court. Nominated by President Barack Obama in 2009, the New York City-area federal judge became only the third woman ever to serve on the nation's high court and the 111th American jurist to receive the prestigious lifetime appointment. With her swearing-in ceremony on August 9, 2009, Sotomayor became the highest-ranking person of Puerto Rican heritage in the United States government. Sotomayor remained a high-profile member of the Supreme Court in the early 2020s.
Sonia Maria Sotomayor was born on June 25, 1954, to parents who had taken advantage of a unique World War I-era law that gave Puerto Ricans U.S. citizenship. Her mother Celina had enlisted in the Women's Army Corps during World War II, and later married Juan Sotomayor. The couple settled in New York City, home to a thriving Puerto Rican-émigré community, where Juan worked as a welder and Sotomayor's mother became a licensed practical nurse at a small hospital in the South Bronx.
Grew Up in Public Housing
In 1957, Sotomayor's younger brother Juan Jr. was born, and that same year the family moved out of their tenement apartment into a public housing unit at the Bronxdale Houses. Sotomayor and her brother attended Roman Catholic schools in southeast Bronx, and her mother "had almost a fanatical emphasis on education," Sotomayor once recalled in an interview with New York Times journalist Jan Hoffman. "We got encyclopedias, and she struggled to make those payments. She kept saying, 'I don't care what you do, but be the best at it.'"
Sotomayor's pleasant childhood was disrupted by two serious events: at the age of eight she was diagnosed with Type I diabetes, and began a lifelong dependence on daily insulin injections. A year later, her father died of a heart attack, though he was just 42 years old. Sotomayor's mother struggled to keep her two children in parochial school, and was able to move them into an even safer place, the enormous new Co-Op City in the northeast quadrant of the Bronx, in the late 1960s.
Earned Scholarship to Princeton
By then Sotomayor had entered Cardinal Spellman High School and had set her sights on a career in law. She earned top grades at the single-sex unit of the school--which became a co-educational institution at the start of her senior year in 1971--was a member of the debate team and the National Honor Society, and graduated as her class valedictorian. Her efforts yielded a full-ride scholarship to an Ivy League school, Princeton University, at a time when the New Jersey college was moving to diversify its student body. She majored in history while working in the college cafeteria, and became active in a Hispanic student group called Accion Puertorriquena that worked to urge Princeton officials to hire and promote more Hispanic-heritage faculty members. She graduated summa cum laude from Princeton in 1976, collecting a top academic prize for her grades along with Phi Beta Kappa distinction. Later that year she married Kevin E. Noonan, a classmate from her Cardinal Spellman days, who went on to become a molecular biologist, and also began classes at Yale Law School in New Haven, Connecticut.
After earning her law degree in 1979, Sotomayor went to work for the District Attorney's office in New York County under prosecutor Robert M. Morgenthau. She spent five years as an assistant district attorney at the famed 100 Centre Street building in Manhattan, at a time when violent crime rates in New York City were skyrocketing. Assistant district attorneys handled about 300 cases a year, collecting evidence and arguing the prosecution's side for conviction. The heavy caseloads handled by Morgenthau's office were the focus of a 1983 New York Times Magazine article by Jonathan Barzilay. "I had more problems during my first year in the office with the low-grade crimes," Sotomayor told Barzilay. "The shoplifting, the prostitution, the minor assault cases. In large measure, in those cases you were dealing with socioeconomic crimes, crimes that could be the product of the environment and of poverty."
Halted Fendi-Counterfeit Purse Scam
During this era, after the breakup of her marriage, Sotomayor lived in the Carroll Gardens section of Brooklyn long before it became a gentrified enclave. In 1984, she opted to go into private practice, choosing a Manhattan boutique firm. In her eight years with Pavia & Harcourt, she handled intellectual property cases for clients that included Ferrari and Fendi and was promoted to partner. In 1991, President George H. W. Bush nominated Sotomayor for a federal judgeship with the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. Her selection had been championed by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the U.S. senator from New York, and she was the first Puerto Rican ever to be nominated for the federal bench in New York. The Bush nomination sailed through the Senate, confirmed by unanimous vote in August of 1992.
Sotomayor was one of 58 judges on the high-profile federal bench of the Southern District of New York, which often landed the most sizzling cases involving organized crime figures--brought in under federal anti-racketeering statutes--and even Wall Street-related misdeeds, because banks and other major financial institutions were headquartered in this federal court's jurisdiction.
Rescued 1995 Baseball Season
Sotomayor, who grew up a New York Yankees fan, first turned up in national news headlines in the spring of 1995 when she made a firm ruling on an ongoing labor dispute between the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) and team owners. The athletes had walked off the job the previous August over proposed new salary rules in the league, and their walkout forced the cancellation of the rest of the 1994 season. The strike threatened to drag on into another year, and even Congress and President Bill Clinton were unable to bring the two sides to a compromise. When team owners began moving replacement players to training camps and then voted to begin the season with them, the case came onto Sotomayor's docket. Famously, she issued an injunction preventing team owners from hiring new teams. "Sotomayor chided baseball owners, saying they had no right to unilaterally eliminate the 20-year-old system of free agents and salary arbitration while bargaining continues," wrote New York Times journalist James C. McKinley Jr. Other newspaper headlines commended her as the woman who finally ended the seven-month-long baseball strike and saved the 1995 MLB season.
In June of 1997, Sotomayor was nominated for another federal judgeship, this one on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. This is the New York City-based appellate court in between the federal courts--like the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York and five other district courts--and the U.S. Supreme Court. President Clinton nominated her for this, and the process once again included vetting by the Senate Judiciary Committee and confirmation by Senate vote. But conservative forces marshaled against Sotomayor, and Republicans in the Senate managed to delay the vote for months. Finally, after more than a year of political wrangling, the Senate confirmed her appointment on October 3, 1998. "Some Republicans," wrote Neil A. Lewis in the New York Times, "did not want to consider the nomination because, they said, putting her on the appeals court would enhance her prospects for elevation to the Supreme Court."
Ruled Against New Haven Firefighters
Sotomayor spent the next eleven years on the federal appeals bench while also teaching courses at the New York University School of Law and Columbia University. One of her most closely watched rulings came in Ricci v. DeStefano, a so-called "reverse affirmative action" case brought by white firefighters in New Haven, Connecticut. To qualify for a promotion, the first-responders had to pass an annual examination, and one year no African-Americans firefighters in the department had earned a qualifying score on the test. New Haven officials decided to nullify the test results, which angered the non-minority candidates who had passed the exam. The city's legal team believed that had they not thrown out the scores from that year's exam, the city might be liable for another lawsuit, this one from minority firefighters claiming that the city of New Haven imposed enough barriers to job promotion to be construed as a form of discrimination. Sotomayor upheld a lower court's ruling, prompting controversy even among some of her federal appellate judges, and the case became mired in a myriad of legal procedural issues; eventually the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review the case, and overturned Sotomayor's ruling.
By then Sotomayor had become a contender for a Supreme Court appointment. A little over three months after President Barack Obama took office, Supreme Court Associate Justice David Souter announced his retirement from the bench. Sotomayor turned up on the Obama administration's shortlist of four female finalists, and on May 26, 2009, the president announced she was his choice to become the 111th justice of the Supreme Court. "She's faced down barriers, overcome the odds, lived out the American dream that brought her parents here so long ago," the president said at a new conference announcing his choice, according to USA Today.
The "Wise Latina" Controversy
Conservative pundits immediately began discussing Sotomayor's ruling on the New Haven case, and also discovered a 2001 speech she gave at the University of California--Berkeley School of Law in an annual event for Latino law students and attorneys. In it, she reflected back on her own life and the importance of diversity in the legal-justice system. "I would hope that a wise Latina woman, with the richness of her experiences, would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life," she said, a quote that was cited by conservative media sources as evidence of her pro-Hispanic bias. The National Review was one such publication, and Andrew C. McCarthy devoted 1,500 words to her remark, calling it "a lightning rod of a claim: Had a white man contended that the richness of his experience rendered him a better judge than a Latina woman, his career would be over."
Sotomayor was given a chance to address that remark by the Senate Judiciary Committee on the first day of her confirmation hearings in July. The televised proceedings showed Sotomayor hobbled by a broken ankle, which she had suffered while running to catch a plane at New York's LaGuardia airport in June. "I was trying to inspire them to believe that their life experiences would enrich the legal system, because different life experiences and backgrounds always do," she said, according to the Washington Post. Conceding that the eight-year-old speech had riled those who believed she was not impartial enough to serve on the Supreme Court, she told the Senate and the nation, "I want to state up front, unequivocally and without doubt, I do not believe that any ethnic, racial or gender group has an advantage in sound judging. I do believe that every person has an equal opportunity to be a good and wise judge regardless of their background or life experiences."
Sotomayor was confirmed by Senate vote on August 6, 2009, and sworn in as an Associate Justice by Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. on August 9. Her mother, Celina--remarried, retired, and visiting Washington from her home in Margate, Florida--held the Bible for the ceremony. One of the more intriguing bits of information that came out of Sotomayor's nomination process was from the financial disclosure forms she was required to submit. Back in 2008, Sotomayor had been visiting a Florida casino with her mother and walked away from a card table with more than $8,000 in winnings, which she then duly claimed on her federal tax return. Her former law clerks had described her to inquiring journalists as an enthusiastic Texas hold'em player.
Service on the Supreme Court
As a Supreme Court justice, Sotomayor was known for being outspoken, probing, and fiercely liberal. She often wrote opinions and dissents on cases involving civil rights, private rights, and criminal justice. Sotomayor regularly spoke out on matters of race and sexuality and promoted the interests of minority groups. For example, in April 2014, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a voter-approved ban on affirmative action in Michigan. Sotomayor dissented and read her dissent aloud from the bench because she believed the Court was wrong. She believed that the Constitution does not give the majority the right to put selective barriers in place against racial minorities. In 2015, Sotomayor voted in favor of gay marriage in the landmark case Obergefell v. Hodges. In the 5-4 vote, 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, she made her convictions clear in cases such as Sessions v. Dimaya and Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission in 2018.
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.
While serving on the Court, Sotomayor also wrote and published several books. In January 2013, she published her 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 book deals with her childhood, education, and early career but not her Supreme Court experiences. 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 and Turning Pages: My Life Story was for younger readers and included illustrations.
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 in 2019, "After 10 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."
- National Review, June 22, 2009.
- New York Times, September 25, 1992; April 1, 1995; October 3, 1998; May 28, 2009; July 10, 2009.
- New York Times Magazine, November 27, 1983; July 12, 2009.
- New Yorker, July 27, 2009; January 11, 2010; March 22, 2010.
- USA Today, May 27, 2009.
- Washington Post, July 14, 2009.
- "'The People's Justice': After Decade on Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor Is the Most Outspoken On Bench and Off," USA Today, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2019/08/08/justice-sonia-sotomayor-supreme-court-liberal-hispanic-decade-bench/1882245001/ (August 24, 2020).
- "Sonia Sotomayor Fast Facts," CNN, https://www.cnn.com/2013/03/08/us/sonia-sotomayor-fast-facts/index.html (August 24, 2020).
- "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).