By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 7, 2009
NEW YORK -- George M. Pavia remembers being instantly impressed with the young woman he hired for his law firm in 1984. Sonia Sotomayor had graduated summa cum laude at Princeton, edited the Yale Law Journal in law school and had courtroom experience in the Manhattan prosecutor's office.
She also spoke Spanish, which helped her understand Italian, and one of the firm's main client's was carmaker Fiat.
"She was just ideal for us in terms of her background and training," said Pavia, managing partner of Pavia & Harcourt.
What also impressed him, he said, was her personal story. Sotomayor, who is of Puerto Rican descent, had grown up in a public housing project in the Bronx, near the old Yankee Stadium. Her father died when she was a child, leaving her mother, a nurse, to instill in Sotomayor and her brother the idea that education was their path to a better life.
"She is, in a way, a counterpart of Obama himself," Pavia said. "It's the American dream -- anybody can make it."
Sotomayor, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, appears by most accounts to be on the shortlist of Supreme Court nominees to replace retiring Justice David H. Souter. If appointed, she would be the third woman on the bench in the court's history and the first Hispanic.
Sotomayor presents a contradiction, say those who know her. Her detractors have said she can be short-tempered, tough on the bench and at odds with the amicability that President Obama has often sought in his appointments.
But her supporters -- former Yale classmates, law firm colleagues and former clerks -- say she meets the definition of what Obama has said he is looking for: a qualified nominee with legal and real world experience, as well as an appreciation for the impact of court decisions on everyday life.
"I think her life experience gives her exactly the kind of perspective the court needs," said Robert H. Klonoff, dean of Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Ore., and a classmate and friend of Sotomayor's from Yale Law School's class of 1979. "When I read [Obama's] description of what he thinks of as an ideal justice, she just fits it to a T." Besides her background, he said, "her credentials are unbelievable."
Among others mentioned as possible replacements for Souter are Elena Kagan, Obama's solicitor general and the former dean of Harvard Law School; Michigan Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm (D), a Harvard Law School graduate; Judge Diane P. Wood of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit; and Leah Ward Sears, chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court.
Sotomayor would probably be a reliably liberal vote on a court split into conservative and liberal blocs on many major issues. But her friends, colleagues and former clerks say she would not be reflexively liberal or "results-oriented" but would adhere to the law and the Constitution.
"More than anything, I would call her a legal purist," said Julia Tarver Mason, who clerked for Sotomayor a decade ago. "I think she defies categorization in that sense because she really does make the law based on the law, in a purist fashion."
"She appreciates the complexity of issues," said Stephen L. Carter, a Yale professor who edited a piece by Sotomayor for the Yale Law Journal in 1979 and who teaches some of her opinions in his classes. Confronted with a tough case, Carter said, "she doesn't leap at its throat but reasons to get to the bottom of issues."
Klonoff recalls seeing flashes of her toughness in their law school days. "She would stand up for herself and not be intimidated by anyone," he said. If she won the appointment to the high court, he said, "I think she'd be the kind of justice who could change some minds."
Many of her former clerks speak of a softer side. While setting a demanding work pace, they said, she became a mentor to them and cared about their personal lives. The divorced Sotomayor, who has no children of her own, has told friends that her clerks are like her children.
"She's one of the best mentors I've ever had," Mason said. "She's given me advice about working in the legal profession, advice about my career, and about my personal life, about relationships."
Another former clerk, Jenny Rivera, now a law professor at New York University, recalled how when her mother died not long ago, Sotomayor called her regularly and came to the funeral. "I know she's very close to her mother," Rivera said. "I really appreciated her sense of caring for me and my brother."
Sotomayor, an avid Yankees fan, lives modestly, reporting virtually no assets despite her $179,500 yearly salary.
On her financial disclosure report for 2007, she said her only financial holdings were a Citibank checking and savings account, worth $50,000 to $115,000 combined.
During the previous four years, the money in the accounts at some points was listed as low as $30,000.
When asked recently how she managed to file such streamlined reports, Sotomayor, according to a source, replied, "When you don't have money, it's easy. There isn't anything there to report."
Staff writers Joe Stephens in Washington and Robin Shulman in New York and staff researcher Madonna Lebling in Washington contributed to this report.