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The un-routine sets apart Sotomayor's first term

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, shown with the choir of Cardinal Spellman High School, her alma mater, takes part in a ceremony to rename in her honor the Bronx public housing complex where she grew up.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, shown with the choir of Cardinal Spellman High School, her alma mater, takes part in a ceremony to rename in her honor the Bronx public housing complex where she grew up. (Bebeto Matthews/associted Press)

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By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 11, 2010

Several partygoers were on their way into the Supreme Court one Saturday evening in May to toast retiring Justice John Paul Stevens when they ran into Justice Sonia Sotomayor. She was not heading to the festivities, but coming from her chambers, where she'd been putting in a weekend shift.

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She looked neither tired from the long hours nor overwhelmed by her new responsibilities, one of the partygoers noticed. "She was beaming."

In some ways, Sotomayor's just-finished first term on the court was like those of many who have come before her: She worked constantly, turned down interview requests and most speaking engagements, wrote unglamorous and largely noncontroversial opinions and was ideologically true to the president who appointed her. She voted with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg more than any other colleague on the court.

But the court's first Hispanic member, and only its third woman, has hardly had the typical first-termer's experience.

She danced at the White House to a song written in her honor. She arrived in her parents' homeland of Puerto Rico to a heroine's welcome and to find T-shirts and coffee mugs bearing her likeness and the words "wise Latina." The Bronx public housing project where she grew up is now the Justice Sonia Sotomayor Houses. When the New York Yankees visited the White House after winning the World Series, team officials made a detour to lug the trophy to her chambers.

Few justices are tracked down at a Manhattan Chinese restaurant by the Daily News, as Sotomayor was last week, when she was asked about the menu (she loves the dumplings) and whether Lindsay Lohan should have been sentenced to jail.

"You know I wouldn't answer that question," a grinning Sotomayor told the reporter. "But I really admire your chutzpah." She added, "That's a New York word."

Still a New Yorker

Sotomayor, 56, remains a New Yorker. She told friends she was looking forward to returning to Manhattan as soon as the term ended, and she has not bought a place in Washington. She has expressed a common New York complaint about Washington: Not enough restaurants deliver.

Still, she is a familiar -- and often recognized -- face in Washington, frequenting the Kennedy Center, dining out with friends, admiring the produce at the "social Safeway" and taking her mother on a tour of Eastern Market. Those who have encountered her report that she has a politician's gift for signing autographs and posing for photos.

Sotomayor has declined to talk to reporters at length, including for this article. But she has delivered commencement addresses at colleges with a personal connection. She handed her niece a diploma at St. Lawrence University, and she spoke to the community college in the Bronx where her mother Celina received a nursing degree.

"This past year, I have often felt like I was living in a dream, wondering when someone was going to pinch me to wake me up," she told the St. Lawrence graduates. "The hours can be long, but I have found that the long hours are painless when you are doing what you love. And I love my job."

Back in Washington, she has admirers -- including members of the court she joined -- and detractors, including Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who say Sotomayor has broken pledges they believe she made at her confirmation hearings last summer.

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