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In Supreme Court Pick Sotomayor, an Insider's Rise Meets an Outsider's Doubts

At Every Stage, a Mentor

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José Cabranes, who is now a judge and colleague of Sotomayor's on the 2nd Circuit, was her most influential early mentor. But he was just part of a chain of people who guided and invested in her at every turn in her life and career -- from the South Bronx to the federal judiciary.

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As Sotomayor was growing up in a family in which no one had gone to college, people prodded her to excel.

"The females were expected to achieve more," said her younger brother, Juan Sotomayor. She loved comic books -- Archie, Casper, Richie Rich -- so much that, after her father died, her paternal grandmother and aunts once convened a family meeting with her mother. "They were concerned about the role of the comic books in my sister's life," recalled her brother, an allergist outside Syracuse, N.Y. "It was maybe corrupting her."

Classmates from Cardinal Spellman High School remember Sotomayor as serious and self-assured, and, while most students were bound for college, she aimed for the Ivy League. In a blend of the fearlessness and vulnerability that has been a pattern in her life, she traveled to Cambridge, Mass., for an interview at Harvard, and then came home and announced that she no longer was interested. "She sensed that the woman [admissions officer] was condescending to her," said her friend, Dawn Cardi, a New York lawyer to whom Sotomayor has told the story. "It made her feel she wouldn't be welcome there."

Princeton seemed to Sotomayor a more plausible path because -- as would happen repeatedly for her -- someone already there and willing to help her urged her to apply. In this case, it was an undergraduate from a poor family like hers, who had been a year ahead of her at Spellman and helped coach her for high school debates.

By the fall of 1976, when Sotomayor arrived at Yale Law and called Cabranes, she already had learned to "look for people who are knowledgeable and experienced to see if they can help in her quest to help herself," as her friend Nancy Gray, a Los Angeles lawyer, put it. Cabranes was Yale's main lawyer, but he also was researching a book about Puerto Rico's history and identity. He enlisted Sotomayor and Felix Lopez, her friend who had surmounted his years as an East Harlem juvenile delinquent, believing their heritage "would make them more interested in finding out the mysteries here," Cabranes said. "They represented for me . . . the fulfillment of one's hopes for . . . the sort of people [who] would emerge in a second generation."

Like her mentors before and since, Cabranes saw in Sotomayor intense engagement, competitiveness and a methodical, analytic style. These would be evident when she was plowing through boxes of documents for him in a small office in Yale's international law library. And later, when she was training to cross-examine her first witnesses. And even now, piecing together the jigsaw puzzles she loves and playing poker with a group of New York women, as she does some weekend nights.

Cabranes was responsible for Sotomayor's first job, through circumstances that, once again, involved their common ethnic roots. He had admired Manhattan's legendary district attorney, Robert Morgenthau, from the days when Cabranes was a founder of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund and Morgenthau was an original member of its board. During Sotomayor's final year of law school, Cabranes recommended her to him.

Yale graduates almost never took jobs as state prosecutors, regarding the role as too pedestrian, and Sotomayor had not considered the idea. But Cabranes sensed she would like the trial work -- and would benefit from something more. "Morgenthau had several hundred people who worked for him, but not that many he had . . . discovered," Cabranes said. "It would be highly unusual to have the personal patronage and concern of Morgenthau."

Five years later, when Sotomayor, by now divorced, was eager for broader legal experience and a larger paycheck, Morgenthau picked up the phone and helped her get hired at Pavia & Harcourt, a well-regarded law firm. There, too, she immediately found a mentor in an exceptionally bright partner named David Botwinik, who worked with her intensively, assigning her to cases with high-flying clients in Italy. "She was invited into the homes of these people," recalled her friend Gray, with whom she had worked at the D.A.'s office. "That was huge."

And seven years later, it was Botwinik who would, in turn, call a childhood friend running a committee that New York's longtime Democratic senator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, had set up to screen possible candidates for federal judgeships.

Her succession of mentors had led her, by age 38, to the federal bench.


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