By Amy Goldstein and Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, May 27, 2009
A few months shy of her 10th anniversary on the federal bench, Sonia Sotomayor flew to a law conference across the country from her native New York to give a speech that explored her ethnic identity and her role as a judge in strikingly personal terms.
She evoked childhood memories: pigs' feet and beans, the sound of merengue at family parties, Saturday-night bingo games with her grandmother calling out the numbers while the children used chickpeas to mark their cards.
Then she pivoted to her view of the judiciary, bluntly rejecting the argument of conservative legal thinkers that judges should decide cases purely on close readings of facts and law, excluding their own frames of reference. "Our gender and national origins may and will make a difference in our judging," Sotomayor told the audience at the University of California at Berkeley that day in October 2001. "Personal experiences affect the facts that judges choose to see. . . . I wonder whether by ignoring our differences as women or men of color we do a disservice both to the law and society."
Long before she made history yesterday as the first Latina nominated to the Supreme Court, Sotomayor had been heavily sculpted, if not fully defined, by her ethnicity. "It defines everything -- a sense of what's fair and what isn't, an identity with respect to a culture," said Sergio Sotolongo, who was a year behind Sotomayor at a Bronx high school and later at Princeton University.
According to interviews with people who grew up and came of age with her, and who have worked with her and for her, Sotomayor, 54, has long had a deliberative and scholarly nature. As a Princeton freshman, she waited to decide whether to join a Latino student group until she researched it to her satisfaction. She can be demanding and exacting, with some lawyers over the years criticizing her as outspoken and temperamental on the bench. She is not a reflexive liberal, her friends and her court opinions suggest.
Yet through decades of success in the highest echelons of academia and the legal profession, she has retained an acute consciousness of herself as a Latina from modest circumstances. She serves queso blanco, a Spanish white-cheese dish, at lunches with her law clerks in her chambers. In an article nearly seven years ago in a magazine about Hispanics in higher education, she was quoted as saying: "I have spent my years since Princeton, while at law school and in my various professional jobs, not feeling completely a part of any of the worlds I inhabit."A Bronx Upbringing
Her parents were born in Puerto Rico and moved to New York during World War II. Her father, a factory worker, died when she was 9. Her mother was a nurse. They lived in the South Bronx in the Bronxdale Houses, a massive brick housing project.
She has had her own frailties. When she was 8, she got a diagnosis of diabetes, and she has taken insulin injections since she was a child. The disease increases her risk for a long list of medical complications.
As a teenager, she commuted about five miles to the Catholic Cardinal Spellman High School -- at the time a middle-class bastion, where boys wore ties and girls wore plaid skirts and relatively few students were minorities. Hers was the first co-educational class. She was elected to the student Senate and was a member of the forensics team, memorizing speeches to be delivered before panels of judges. From early in high school, she talked of becoming a litigator. "In her mind it was speaking up for those who couldn't speak for themselves, going to court," Sotolongo recalled.
At Princeton, there were no more than several dozen black and Latino students when she entered. A history major, she studied hard, earned stellar grades and was so understated that some of her friends learned that she had won the premier undergraduate academic award, the Pyne Prize, by reading about it in the student newspaper.
She was active in Latino student affairs but not a bomb-thrower. Next to her Princeton yearbook photo, she chose a quote from Norman Thomas, a prominent socialist who ran for president six times: "I am not a champion of lost causes, but of causes not yet won."
She entered Yale Law School and succeeded there as well. As an editor of the Yale Law Journal, she published what was called a "note" that explored the possibility of statehood for Puerto Rico -- "not a topic that was much in discussion at Yale Law School," recalled a classmate, Martha L. Minow, now a law professor at Harvard. The note, Minow recalled, examined the effect statehood might have on Puerto Rico's mineral rights, without taking a side on the volatile statehood issue itself.
In her third year of law school, Sotomayor lodged a formal complaint against a Washington law firm that she alleged had asked her discriminatory questions at a recruiting dinner. The firm issued an apology.Passion for 'Law and Order'
Robert Morgenthau, a longtime Manhattan district attorney, said he hired Sotomayor directly out of Yale and she rose rapidly, moving from cases of assault and other misdemeanors to the murders then plaguing New York. Morgenthau described her cases as "nothing extraordinary." In the most prominent, she and another prosecutor won a conviction against the "Tarzan murderer," a man who swung onto the balconies of tenement apartments to rob people and sometimes shoot them.
Warren Murray, who supervised Sotomayor and still works in the prosecutor's office, recalled her zeal for child pornography cases, which were relatively rare in the pre-Internet era. "She was very gung-ho against pedophilia," Murray said.
Peter M. Kougasian, an assistant Manhattan district attorney who worked with Sotomayor and also attended college and law school with her, said she chose to be a prosecutor because she felt a passion "to bring law and order to the streets of New York." He said she never revealed to him her political views.
She left after five years to become an associate, then partner, at a New York law firm, Pavia & Harcourt, where she largely handled cases involving international corporations doing business in the United States.
In 1992, she was nominated by a Republican president, George H.W. Bush, to become a judge on the U.S. District Court in Manhattan. Democrat Bill Clinton chose her as the first Latino on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the 2nd District, in New York.
Julia Tarver Mason, who clerked for Sotomayor as a federal district judge in 1996, described her as a "legal purist" who feels strongly about upholding legal precedents when she can find them in the case law. But Mason said Sotomayor's ethnicity "has shaped her values in profound ways."
She can sometimes be sensitive about it. John W. Fried, Sotomayor's first supervisor in the Manhattan prosecutor's office, said she gently corrected him when he mispronounced her name so that it sounded more anglicized.
Laura Murray Tjan, who clerked for Sotomayor on the 2nd Circuit in 1999, said the judge stayed in touch with the legal community in Puerto Rico, vacationed there and had numerous Latino friends. Murray said Sotomayor was not influenced by ideology and rigorously compelled her clerks to follow legal precedents. Several clerks described her as exacting and a perfectionist, sending back briefs to correct spelling and punctuation errors.Hard to Categorize
In cases on hot-button social and political issues, Sotomayor has been difficult to categorize ideologically, with some rulings that have pleased conservatives and others liberals. She denied a challenge from an abortion rights group to a George W. Bush administration policy that barred U.S. aid to international family-planning groups if they provided or counseled about abortion.
In a significant First Amendment case, Sotomayor dissented from the court majority that held that the New York City Police Department did not violate the rights of an employee when it fired him for sending racist mailings. "I find the speech in this case patently offensive, hateful, and insulting," she wrote in 2002. "The Court should not, however, gloss over three decades of jurisprudence and the centrality of First Amendment freedoms in our lives."
Jeri Faulkner was a freshman of Caribbean descent at Cardinal Spellman when Sotomayor was a senior, and she remembers the older girl as a role model for the few minority students. "I can see her sitting in the cafeteria at a table, leading and being part of discussion, all animated," said Faulkner, now a dean of students at the school. "Sonia burst out of boxes and was never limited by where she came from."