Sotomayor's College Activism Was Passionate but Civil

The Washington Post's Amy Goldstein discusses Judge Sonia Sotomayor's pursuit of social justice at Princeton University and Yale Law School. Video by Audio by Sarah Lovenheim
By Amy Goldstein and Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, June 1, 2009

Around Christmas of 1973, a fellow sophomore approached Frank Reed, a leader of Princeton University's Chicano Caucus, to hand him a formal complaint she had typed up and to ask him to support it.

Sonia Sotomayor was head of the other Latino organization on campus, Acción Puertorriqueña. And after a history of fruitless student talks with Princeton administrators over the lack of Hispanic professors and staff, Sotomayor believed the time had come to lodge a grievance with the federal government over the university's hiring practices.

The written complaint, filed that April with what was then the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, accused Princeton of an "institutional pattern of discrimination" in hiring "Puerto Rican and Chicano" faculty, as well as in admitting students from those ethnic groups. The strategy, Reed recalled, was "different than anything that had ever been done" by the two student organizations. Neither rowdy nor meek, it reached boldly for outside legal pressure on the university to diversify the campus.

Such a strategy would become vintage Sotomayor: pressing her causes forcefully, while maintaining a civil dialogue. In the nearly two decades between when she came of age and when she joined the federal judiciary, the woman President Obama has now nominated to the Supreme Court demonstrated a passionate engagement at the intersection of ethnic heritage and social justice. She advocated -- publicly, aggressively -- for inclusion and expanded civil rights, yet always worked within the framework of traditional levers and institutions.

As a Yale law student after she graduated from Princeton, Sotomayor protested to a dean over questions that she contended were discriminatory posed by a Washington law firm at a recruiting dinner. Soon after taking her first job, she joined the board of a Puerto Rican advocacy group that fought for voting, employment and housing rights. She eventually became a board member, too, of a New York nonprofit group that works to improve care for pregnant women and a state agency that promoted homeownership for poor people.

When she became a judge in 1992 on the U.S. District Court in Manhattan, Sotomayor severed her ties with advocacy groups. Her social activism does not shed light on whether she has, as a trial judge or later on the appellate bench, been a "judicial activist" -- the derogatory label conservatives sometimes apply to liberal jurists. Still, the causes in which Sotomayor took part for years suggest that she holds deeply rooted views on issues that remain part of the political debate today -- and, in some cases, unsettled areas of the law.

The top priority of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund when she joined its board, for instance, was challenging what it regarded as racial gerrymandering in legislative districts, an issue the Supreme Court is now weighing as it considers a central element of the Voting Rights Act. The fund also fought to reform the hiring process in New York's police and fire departments, raising some of the questions now under review by the Supreme Court in an employment discrimination case involving the New Haven fire department -- a case that Sotomayor ruled on as an appeals judge. And as a board member of the New York Mortgage Agency, Sotomayor helped promote home loans for low-income minorities, an issue central to the recent housing boom and bust.

In Sotomayor's view, public service "means much more than who writes your paycheck," said Juan Cartagena, a staff lawyer at the defense fund during her affiliation there. "The social justice thing was very natural to her."

Diversity at Princeton

When she arrived at Princeton in the fall of 1972, questions about the racial, ethnic and gender makeup of student bodies and faculties coursed through the Ivy League. Sotomayor's class was just the third at Princeton that included women. And while the university had begun to expand slowly its small number of Hispanic students, there was not a single full-time Latino professor, nor any class on Latin America. Having been raised in the South Bronx by a widowed mother who worked two jobs to pay her tuition to a Catholic high school, Sotomayor felt estranged from many of her white classmates from privileged backgrounds, friends from her undergraduate years recall.

She found a social world and political causes among students like herself, friends from then recall. She quickly became a leader of the fledgling organization of Puerto Rican students, and she concluded that it would be difficult for Princeton to recruit Latino students without Latinos on its faculty or staff, said Joseph Schubert, another Hispanic undergraduate who was part of the debate and then covered it for the Daily Princetonian, the student newspaper.

The hiring question had been simmering for a few years, but "things started to heat up in 1974," said Reed, the former Chicano Caucus leader, who is now an investment banker in San Antonio. Some Hispanic students argued for a demonstration. Others favored simply leafleting the campus. "Sonia . . . really articulated a strategy of keeping the communication [with administrators] open, but at the same time filing this petition to have outside help to get the university moving forward," he said.

"It's the kind of strategy that she would embrace. She was going through legal means," said Peter Winn, a history professor at the time, who knew Sotomayor well and became her thesis adviser.

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