Gritty First Job as Manhattan Prosecutor Helped Forge Sotomayor

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By Joe Stephens and Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, June 4, 2009

Former New York police detective Chris Montanino remembers his frustration nearly three decades ago, when he was ready to go after child-porn distributors but couldn't find a prosecutor who would take his case seriously.

Then he returned a call from a young woman at the local district attorney's office -- an intense, chain-smoking prosecutor known for working into the night, fueled by the caffeine buzz from a string of Tab diet sodas.

When he got her on the line, he recalls, "I blew my top," complaining that his case -- he had purchased an armload of child pornography at a Manhattan bookstore -- had been passed from prosecutor to prosecutor without progress. "This is baloney," he said.

The assistant district attorney, Sonia Sotomayor, cut short his tirade. "You will be in my office at 9 a.m. tomorrow," she said before hanging up.

"And that is the way it went," Montanino said in an recent interview. "She was no-nonsense."

The five years Sotomayor spent in the Manhattan district attorney's office, say several friends and colleagues, shaped her as a criminal prosecutor and helped form her worldview as a judge. The experience, combined with her later years as a trial judge, would make her unique among her new colleagues at the Supreme Court should she be confirmed and would bring a firsthand exposure to the court's consideration of criminal procedure and sentencing.

As a federal judge for 17 years at the district and circuit court levels, Sotomayor has written thousands of opinions, which now are receiving renewed scrutiny. The early examinations tell little about her jurisprudence on capital punishment, because it is rarely imposed in the states covered by the Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, but so far have shown her as a middle-of-the-road jurist who, like most judges, rules most often in favor of the prosecution.

"She toes the line in terms of following what the law is, and in that respect [her opinions] come out as more pro-government," said Ellen S. Podgor, a law professor at Stetson University who has reviewed about 100 of Sotomayor's appellate rulings in white-collar cases.

A Different Path

Sotomayor arrived at the district attorney's office in 1979 from Princeton and Yale Law School, stepping off a path that had taken many of her classmates to white-shoe law firms and hefty paychecks. Instead she opted for the relatively low-paying position, telling friends she wanted the real-life experience, as well as a job that would allow her to try cases right away. With New York struggling financially and crime climbing to historic highs, the office was a gritty, frenetic place.

In the faded art deco building, three and four prosecutors were squeezed into spaces designed for one. The intake room swelled with cops and crime victims. Metal desks were piled with papers and hemmed in by boxes of evidence. Sotomayor, described by friends as focused, intense and a perfectionist, labored to keep her desk an island of organization among the chaos.

Dressed in inexpensive suits -- the only kind she could afford on her public servant's salary -- she prosecuted cases of disorderly conduct, public urination and graffiti. Within six months, she was promoted to handle more serious felonies, well ahead of her freshman class of prosecutors. Colleagues say she spent hour after hour studying the minutiae of her cases against killers, armed robbers, child abusers and wayward cops.

The prosecutors were expected to juggle 80 to 100 cases at a time, and in her years there Sotomayor tried perhaps 20 cases before juries. She survived by becoming, in the words of her friend Dawn Cardi, a "caffeine addict" who started her day with a Tab, one of maybe 20 she threw back on an average day, along with a pack and a half of cigarettes.


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