A Puerto Rican girl raised in a housing project goes on to become the first Hispanic to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court. That's Sonia Sotomayor's biography in a nutshell--a true rags-to-riches tale. The judge's rise to the Supreme Court required hard work and determination. The facts of her life reveal an ambitious woman who garnered professional recognition without forgetting where she came from.
Sonia Sotomayor was born in the Bronx, New York, on June 25, 1954. Sotomayor noted in lecture called "A Latina Judge's Voice" that this was the same year that the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the desegregation of schools in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision. The daughter of Puerto Rican parents who moved to the U.S. during World War II to escape poverty, Sotomayor has described herself as a "Newyorkrican." Her machinist father, Juan, died when Sotomayor was nine years old. That left her mother, Celina, a nurse, the task of supporting Sotomayor and her younger brother.
Although she was raised by a single parent, Sotomayor's extended family played a large role in her upbringing. The young Sotomayor embraced her Hispanic heritage by eating traditional Puerto Rican dishes with relatives such as morcilla (pig intestines), patitas de cerdo con garbanzo (pigs' feet with beans), and la lengua y orejas de cuchifrito (pigs' tongue and ears). "Part of my Latina identity is the sound of merengue at all our family parties and the heart wrenching Spanish love songs that we enjoy," Sotomayor recalled in her 2001 lecture. While Sotomayor says that she speaks Spanish "fairly well," she doesn't consider this ability to be a key part of Latino identity, pointing out that her brother, only three years younger, does not.
Education and Career
When Sotomayor entered Princeton University, from which she earned a B.A. in 1976, she didn't forget about her Puerto Rican roots. She participated in groups on campus such as Accion Puertorriquena and The Third World Center. After Princeton, where she graduated summa cum laude, she married Kevin Edward Noonan and entered Yale Law School. Upon earning her law degree in 1979, Sotomayor noticed that there were no women on the U.S. Supreme Court or on New York's highest court. One African American--Thurgood Marshall--sat on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Undaunted, Sotomayor pressed ahead in her career. After leaving Yale Law, she became Assistant District Attorney in the New York County District Attorney's Office, a position she held until 1984. During that time, her marriage unraveled and she and Noonan divorced. The couple had no children. Sotomayor went on to work as a litigator at New York City firm Pavia & Harcourt. She would later become an associate and ultimately a partner in the firm.
Thanks to a nomination from President George H.W. Bush, Sotomayor served on the U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, from 1992 to 1998. In the late 1990s the judge also branched out into academia, teaching law at New York University and at Columbia Law School. In 1998, she continued to climb the career ladder, serving as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit until 2009. During that time, Sotomayor noticed the strides women of color were making in the legal field. "Latinas are making a lot of progress in the old-boy network," she said in her "A Latina Judge's Voice" lecture. But she was eager for more progress to be made. "We are waiting for a third appointment of a woman to both the Supreme Court and the New York Court of Appeals and of a second minority, male or female, preferably Hispanic, to the Supreme Court," she explained in a prophetic statement. Little did Sotomayor know that she would be the Hispanic in question. On May 26, 2009, President Barack Obama nominated her to serve as an associate justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.
A Controversial Nomination
When word spread that President Obama had nominated a Latina judge as a Supreme Court nominee, the Hispanic community largely rejoiced at the news. Conservative politicians and pundits did not. During the hearings to confirm Sotomayor as an associate justice on the high court, Republicans attacked her temperament, saying she had a reputation for being brash. Sotomayor's supporters pointed out that male judges on the court with similar reputations had not been questioned in such a manner.
During the confirmation hearings, Sotomayor wasn't just characterized as a bully but also as a racist. That's because in her 2001 lecture at the University of California, Berkeley, Sotomayor discussed whether gender and culture influence a judge's decision-making skills. She remarked that "a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life." Her advocates asserted that Sotomayor wasn't suggesting that Latinas were inherently wiser than white men. Instead, wrote writer Carolina Miranda in Time magazine, "Sotomayor was trying say that her breadth of experience navigating different worlds might lead her to have greater wisdom on certain topics than her white male counterparts."
In the end, the controversy over Sotomayor's temperament and racial views proved inconsequential. On Aug. 8, 2009, she was confirmed as the first Latina to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.