Sotomayor Becomes First Hispanic Justice in Supreme Court History

By Amy Goldstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 9, 2009

Sonia Sotomayor was sworn in Saturday morning as the first Hispanic justice on the Supreme Court in a brief ceremony that completed a remarkable ascent for a Puerto Rican girl from the South Bronx.

Sotomayor, 55, rested her left hand on a Bible held by her mother and raised her right hand as Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. administered a pair of oaths that made her the 111th justice to serve on the nation's highest court. She pledged to "administer justice without respect to persons and do equal right to the poor and to the rich."

The chief justice had slightly flubbed the wording of the oath of office when he swore in President Obama in January; this time he held a piece of paper containing the oath for Sotomayor. Occasionally Roberts looked down as he recited the words.

Immediately after she repeated Roberts's words in a firm voice, the new justice, wearing a cream-colored suit and a wide smile, gave a long hug to her mother, Celina Sotomayor, and one to her brother, Juan, who stood at her side.

"Congratulations and welcome to the court," Roberts said.

The two-part ceremony began with a constitutional oath, dating to the 1860s, that Roberts administered privately in the justices' conference room near the rear of the Supreme Court building on Capitol Hill. They then walked to the court's paneled East Conference Room, where Sotomayor took the judicial oath before about 60 relatives and friends, standing beneath a portrait of John Marshall, the renowned 19th-century chief justice. The court permitted the second oath to be broadcast on television, marking the first live coverage of such a ceremony in the institution's history.

Besides Roberts, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy attended the ceremony, as did two members of the White House counsel's office who had helped select Sotomayor and shepherd her through the confirmation process. Friends whom Sotomayor invited included Robert Katzmann, with whom she served on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, and Rep. Nydia Velasquez (D-N.Y.). The new justice attended a reception after the ceremony.

Sotomayor becomes the third woman to serve on the Supreme Court and the first appointee by a Democratic president in 15 years. Obama nominated her to replace David H. Souter, who announced in early May that, after 19 years as a justice, he intended to retire to his native New Hampshire.

Sotomayor became a member of the court two days after she was confirmed by the Senate on a 68 to 31 vote. She won the support of every Democratic senator except Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.), who was too ill to be present, but fewer than one-fourth of the Republicans.

Her swearing-in took place on a Saturday to accommodate relatives and friends attending from out of town.

During the 10 weeks between Sotomayor's nomination and the Senate vote confirming her, Obama, Democratic senators and their allies portrayed her as a seasoned and moderate jurist with 17 years on the federal bench, as a trial judge in Manhattan and then as an appellate court judge.

They also emphasized her biography. She was raised by a widowed mother in a South Bronx housing project. She went on to the Ivy League for college and law school, then worked as a prosecutor and at a private law firm with an international clientele before becoming a federal judge at age 38.

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