Friends Provide a Glimpse Into Sotomayor's 'Very Full Life'

Judge Sonia Sotomayor, a nominee to the Supreme Court, owns a condominium in this Greenwich Village building in New York.
Judge Sonia Sotomayor, a nominee to the Supreme Court, owns a condominium in this Greenwich Village building in New York. (By Craig Ruttle -- Associated Press)
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By Keith B. Richburg, Robin Shulman and Nancy Trejos
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, May 31, 2009

NEW YORK -- Last November, soon after Barack Obama was elected president, a close friend of Judge Sonia Sotomayor's was hospitalized on Long Island because of a series of strokes.

Speculation was already swirling that the new president might make Sotomayor his first pick should a vacancy open on the Supreme Court. Sotomayor also had a full caseload she was balancing as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit in Manhattan.

But three or four times a week, Sotomayor would leave work around 7 p.m. to visit her friend. Ever the urbanite, Sotomayor would pick up some chicken soup, get in her white Saab convertible and wind through rush-hour traffic to Long Island to sit by the bedside of a woman who was often unconscious and unaware that Sotomayor was there. Finally, the trips came to an end in April -- not because of the pressures of the trip on her busy life, but because her friend died.

Those visits, recounted by several of Sotomayor's closest friends, provide a telling glimpse into the private life of the woman nominated last week by President Obama to be the next Supreme Court justice and the first Hispanic on the high court. The friends go on to describe her in laudatory, if predictable, ways: collegial, intensely loyal, a bedrock in crisis.

But another portrait emerges as well in their descriptions, one that sets her far apart from the retiring justice she would succeed, David H. Souter. Souter is known as a bookish recluse, a loner who hates airplanes and prefers the solitude of his New Hampshire hamlet called Weare, and is said to have no interest in overseas travel.

Sotomayor is precisely the opposite. Hers is a life that rises and falls on urban rhythms.

"They couldn't be more different," said Ellen Chapnick, dean of the social justice program at Columbia Law School and a close Sotomayor friend. "Not talking about judicial philosophy -- talking about personality type and how they spend their time: They couldn't be more different."

If Sotomayor is confirmed and moves to Washington, Chapnick said, "She'll probably find parts of the city to enjoy that other people don't even know are there."

A 54-year-old divorced woman who never had children, Sotomayor is said to be a workaholic who fills her free time with a huge network of close friends, extended family members, colleagues, former classmates and just about anyone else who has entered her circle. They are judges and lawyers and also secretaries and a mail carrier. She has more godchildren than her friends can count.

She is a gregarious and social New Yorker who loves dinner parties -- in restaurants, at friends' homes or lechon de asado for large gatherings at her two-bedroom apartment in the West Village. She loves dancing; a few years ago, she and friends took salsa lessons at a Tribeca dance studio to improve their moves. She loves shopping. And she loves travel, vacationing with close friends such as Ken Kinzer and his wife, Dawn Cardi. A trip to the Netherlands. Sailing around the Caribbean. Sailing, canoeing and biking around North Carolina's Outer Banks.

A woman from a humble background -- the South Bronx projects -- who now lives on an appellate judge's salary of $179,500, Sotomayor would be the court's poorest member. On financial disclosure forms, she lists her only assets as a Citibank checking and savings account worth combined $50,000 to $115,000, plus the equity in her Greenwich Village condo.

Nonetheless, friends consider her generous with whatever money she has. When Kinzer, who owns a Brooklyn dry cleaning business, got into financial problems in the early 1990s, Sotomayor offered him a loan of $15,000. "We needed some funds right away. Sonia volunteered," he said. "I was taken aback, never expecting it. I've had family members say no to me."

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