Sonia was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at age eight, and began taking daily insulin injections. Her father died of heart problems at age 42, when she was nine years old. After this, she became fluent in English. Sotomayor has said that she was first inspired by the strong-willed Nancy Drew book character, and then after her diabetes diagnosis led doctors to suggest a different career from detective, she was inspired to go into a legal career and become a judge by watching the Perry Mason television series. She reflected in 1998: "I was going to college and I was going to become an attorney, and I knew that when I was ten. Ten. That's no jest."
Celina Sotomayor put great stress on the value of education; she bought the Encyclopædia Britannica for her children, something unusual in the housing projects. Sotomayor has credited her mother with being her "life inspiration". For grammar school, Sotomayor attended the parochial Blessed Sacrament School in Soundview, where she was valedictorian and had a near-perfect attendance record. Although underage, Sotomayor worked at a local retail store; she also worked at a hospital. Sotomayor passed the entrance tests for, then commuted to, the academically rigorous parochial Cardinal Spellman High School in the Bronx. Meanwhile, the Bronxdale Houses had fallen victim to increasing heroin use, crime, and the emergence of the Black Spades gang. In 1970, the family found refuge by moving to Co-op City in the Northeast Bronx. At Cardinal Spellman, Sotomayor was on the forensics team and was elected to the student government. She graduated as valedictorian in 1972.
College and law school
When Sotomayor entered Princeton University on a full scholarship, there were few women students and fewer Latinos (about 20). She knew only of the Bronx and Puerto Rico, and she later described her initial Princeton experience as like "a visitor landing in an alien country." She was too intimidated to ask questions for her first year there; her writing and vocabulary skills were weak, and she lacked knowledge in the classics. She put in long hours in the library and over summers, worked with a professor outside class, and gained skills, knowledge, and confidence. She became a moderate student activist and co-chair of the Acción Puertorriqueña organization, which looked for more opportunities for Puerto Rican students and served as a social and political hub for them. She worked in the admissions office, travelling to high schools and lobbying on behalf of her best prospects. Sotomayor focused in particular on faculty hiring and curriculum; at the time, Princeton did not have a single full-time Latino professor nor any class on Latin America. Sotomayor later addressed the curriculum issue in an opinion piece in the college paper: "Not one permanent course in this university now deals in any notable detail with the Puerto Rican or Chicano cultures." After a visit to university president William G. Bowen in her sophomore year did not produce results, the organization filed a formal letter of complaint in April 1974 with the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, saying the school discriminated in its hiring and admission practices. Sotomayor told the New York Times at the time that "Princeton is following a policy of benign neutrality and is not making substantive efforts to change," and she wrote opinion pieces for The Daily Princetonian with the same theme. The university began to hire Latino faculty, and Sotomayor established an ongoing dialogue with Bowen. Sotomayor also successfully persuaded historian Peter Winn to create a seminar on Puerto Rican history and politics. Sotomayor joined the governance board of Princeton's Third World Center and served on the university's student–faculty Discipline Committee, which issued rulings on student infractions. She also ran an after-school program for local children and volunteered as an interpreter for Latino patients at Trenton Psychiatric Hospital.
Sotomayor’s 1976 Princeton yearbook photo
A history major, Sotomayor received almost all A's in her final two years of college. Sotomayor wrote her senior thesis at Princeton on Luis Muñoz Marín, the first democratically elected governor of Puerto Rico, and on the territory's struggles for economic and political self-determination. The 178-page thesis, "La Historia Ciclica de Puerto Rico: The Impact of the Life of Luis Muñoz Marin on the Political and Economic History of Puerto Rico, 1930–1975", won honorable mention for the Latin American Studies Thesis Prize. As a senior, Sotomayor won the Pyne Prize, the top award for undergraduates, which reflected both strong grades and extracurricular activities. In 1976, she was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and awarded an A.B. from Princeton, graduating summa cum laude. Sotomayor has described her time at Princeton as a life-changing experience.
On August 14, 1976, just after graduating from Princeton, Sotomayor married Kevin Edward Noonan, whom she had dated since high school, in a small chapel at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York. She used the married name Sonia Sotomayor de Noonan. He became a biologist and a patent lawyer.
In the fall of 1976, Sotomayor entered Yale Law School, again on a scholarship This, too, was a place with very few Latinos. She fit in well and was known as a hard worker, but she was not considered among the top stars of her class. Yale General Counsel and professor José A. Cabranes was an early mentor to her and helped her to understand how she could be successful within "the system". She became an editor of the Yale Law Journal and was also managing editor of the student-run Yale Studies in World Public Order publication, which is now known as the Yale Journal of International Law. Sotomayor published a law review note on the effect of possible Puerto Rican statehood on the island's mineral and ocean rights. She was a semi-finalist in the Barristers Union mock trial competition. She was co-chair of a group for Latin, Asian, and Native American students, and in her advocacy pushed for hiring more Hispanics for the faculty of the law school. In her third year, she filed a formal complaint against the established Washington, D.C., law firm of Shaw, Pittman, Potts & Trowbridge for suggesting during a recruiting dinner that she was only at Yale via affirmative action. Sotomayor refused to be interviewed by the firm further and filed her complaint with a faculty–student tribunal, which ruled in her favor. Her action triggered a campus-wide debate, and news of the firm's subsequent December 1978 apology made the Washington Post. In 1979, she was awarded a J.D. from Yale Law School. She was admitted to the New York Bar in 1980.
Early legal career
On the recommendation of Cabranes, Sotomayor was hired out of law school as an assistant district attorney under New York County District Attorney Robert Morgenthau starting in 1979. She said at the time that she did so with conflicted emotions: "There was a tremendous amount of pressure from my community, from the third world community, at Yale. They could not understand why I was taking this job. I'm not sure I've ever resolved that problem." It was a time of crisis-level crime rates and drug problems in New York, Morgenthau's staff was overburdened with cases, and like other rookie prosecutors she was initially fearful of appearing before judges in court. Working in the trial division, she handled heavy caseloads as she prosecuted everything from shoplifting and prostitution to robberies, assaults, and murders. She also worked on cases involving police brutality. She was not afraid to venture into tough neighborhoods or endure squalid conditions in order to interview witnesses. In the courtroom, she was effective at cross examination and at simplifying a case in ways that a jury could relate to. She helped convict the "Tarzan Murderer" (who acrobatically entered apartments, robbed them, and shot residents for no reason) in 1983 in her highest-profile case. She felt lower-level crimes were largely products of socioeconomic environment and poverty, but she had a different attitude about serious felonies: "No matter how liberal I am, I'm still outraged by crimes of violence. Regardless of whether I can sympathize with the causes that lead these individuals to do these crimes, the effects are outrageous." Hispanic-on-Hispanic crime was of particular concern to her: "The saddest crimes for me were the ones that my own people committed against each other." In general, she showed a passion for bringing law and order to the streets of New York, displaying special zeal in pursuing child pornography cases, unusual for the time. She worked 15-hour days and gained a reputation for being driven and for her preparedness and fairness. One of her job evaluations labelled her a "potential superstar". Morgenthau later described her as "smart, hard-working, [and having] a lot of common sense," and as a "fearless and effective prosecutor." She stayed a typical length of time in the post and had a common reaction to the job: "After a while, you forget there are decent, law-abiding people in life."
She and Noonan divorced amicably in 1983; they did not have children. She has said that the pressures of her working life were a contributing factor, but not the major factor, in the breakup.
In 1984, she entered private practice, joining the commercial litigation practice group of Pavia & Harcourt in Manhattan as an associate. One of 30 attorneys in the law firm, she specialized in intellectual property litigation, international law, and arbitration. She later said, "I wanted to complete myself as an attorney." Although she had no civil litigation experience, the firm recruited her heavily, and she learned quickly on the job. She was eager to try cases and argue in court, rather than be part of a larger law firm. Her clients were mostly international corporations doing business in the United States; much of her time was spent tracking down and suing counterfeiters of Fendi goods. In some cases Sotomayor went on-site with the police to Harlem or Chinatown to have illegitimate merchandise seized, in the latter instance pursuing a fleeing culprit while riding on a motorcycle. She said at the time that Pavia & Harcourt's efforts were run "much like a drug operation", and the successful rounding up of thousands of counterfeit accessories in 1986 was celebrated by "Fendi Crush", a destruction-by-garbage-truck event at Tavern on the Green. At other times she dealt with dry legal issues such as grain export contract disputes. In a 1986 appearance on Good Morning America that profiled women ten years after college graduation, she said that the bulk of law work was drudgery, and that while she was content with her life she had expected greater things of herself coming out of college. In 1988 she became a partner at the firm; she was paid well but not extravagantly. She left in 1992 when she became a judge.
From 1983 to 1986, Sotomayor had an informal solo practice, dubbed Sotomayor & Associates, located in her Brooklyn apartment. She performed legal consulting work, often for friends or family members.
In addition to her law firm work, Sotomayor found visible public service roles. She was not connected to the party bosses that typically picked people for such jobs in New York, and indeed she was registered as an independent. Instead, District Attorney Morgenthau, an influential figure, served as her patron. In 1987, Governor of New YorkMario Cuomo appointed Sotomayor to the board of the State of New York Mortgage Agency, which she served on until 1992. As part of one of the largest urban rebuilding efforts in American history, the agency helped low-income people get home mortgages and to provide insurance coverage for housing and AIDShospices. Despite being the youngest member of a board composed of strong personalities, she involved herself in the details of the operation and was effective. She was vocal in supporting the right to affordable housing, directing more funds to lower-income home owners, and in her skepticism about the effects of gentrification, although in the end she voted in favor of most of the projects.
Sotomayor was appointed by Mayor Ed Koch in 1988 as one of the founding members of the New York City Campaign Finance Board, where she served for four years. There she took a vigorous role in the board's implementation of a voluntary scheme wherein local candidates received public matching funds in exchange for limits on contributions and spending and agreeing to greater financial disclosure. Sotomayor showed no patience with candidates who failed to follow regulations and was more of a stickler for making campaigns follow those regulations than some of the other board members. She joined in rulings that fined, audited, or reprimanded the mayoral campaigns of Koch, David Dinkins, and Rudy Giuliani.
Based upon another recommendation from Cabranes, Sotomayor was a member of the board of directors of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund from 1980 to 1992. There she was a top policy maker who actively worked with the organization's lawyers on issues such as New York City hiring practices, police brutality, the death penalty, and voting rights. The group achieved its most visible triumph when it successfully blocked a city primary election on the grounds that New York City Council boundaries diminished the power of minority voters.
Sotomayor had wanted to become a judge since she was in elementary school, and in 1991 she was recommended for a spot by Democratic New York senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Moynihan had an arrangement with his fellow New York senator, Republican Al D'Amato, whereby he would get to choose roughly one out of every four New York district court seats even though a Republican was in the White House. Moynihan also wanted to fulfill a public promise he had made to get a Hispanic judge appointed for New York. When Moynihan's staff recommended her to him, they said "Have we got a judge for you!" Moynihan identified with her socio-economic and academic background and became convinced she would become the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice. D'Amato became an enthusiastic backer of Sotomayor, who was seen as politically centrist at the time. Of the impending drop in salary from private practice, Sotomayor said: "I've never wanted to get adjusted to my income because I knew I wanted to go back to public service. And in comparison to what my mother earns and how I was raised, it's not modest at all."
Sotomayor became the youngest judge in the Southern District and the first Hispanic federal judge in New York State. She became the first Puerto Rican woman to serve as a judge in a U.S. federal court. She was one of seven women among the district's 58 judges. She moved from Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, back to the Bronx in order to live within her district.
Sotomayor generally kept a low public profile as a district court judge. She showed a willingness to take anti-government positions in a number of cases, and during her first year in the seat, she received high ratings from liberal public-interest groups. Other sources and organizations regarded her as a centrist during this period. In criminal cases, she gained a reputation as for tough sentencing and was not viewed as a pro-defense judge. A Syracuse University study found that in such cases, Sotomayor generally handed out longer sentences than her colleagues, especially when white-collar crime was involved. Fellow district judge Miriam Goldman Cedarbaum was an influence upon Sotomayor in adopting a narrow, "just the facts" approach to judicial decision-making.
As a trial judge, she garnered a reputation for being well-prepared in advance of a case and moving cases along a tight schedule. Lawyers before her court viewed her as plain-spoken, intelligent, demanding, and sometimes somewhat unforgiving; one said, "She does not have much patience for people trying to snow her. You can't do it."
On March 30, 1995, in Silverman v. Major League Baseball Player Relations Committee, Inc., Sotomayor issued the preliminary injunction against Major League Baseball, preventing it from unilaterally implementing a new collective bargaining agreement and using replacement players. Her ruling ended the 1994 baseball strike after 232 days, the day before the new season was scheduled to begin. The Second Circuit upheld Sotomayor's decision and denied the owners' request to stay the ruling. The decision raised her profile, won her the plaudits of baseball fans, and had a lasting effect upon the game.
Judge Sonia Sotomayor with her godson at the United States Court of Appeals signing ceremony in 1998
On June 25, 1997, Sotomayor was nominated by President Bill Clinton to a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, which was vacated by J. Daniel Mahoney. Her nomination was initially expected to have smooth sailing, with the American Bar Association giving her a "well qualified" professional assessment, but as the The New York Times described, "[it became] embroiled in the sometimes tortured judicial politics of the Senate." Some in the Republican majority believed Clinton was eager to name the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice and that an easy confirmation to the appeals court would put Sotomayor in a better position for a possible Supreme Court nomination (despite there being no vacancy at the time nor any indication the Clinton administration was considering nominating her or any Hispanic), and therefore they decided to slow her confirmation. Radio commentator Rush Limbaugh weighed in that Sotomayor was an ultraliberal who was on a "rocket ship" to the highest court.
During her September 1997 hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sotomayor parried strong questioning from some Republican members about mandatory sentencing, gay rights, and her level of respect for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. After a long wait, she was approved by the committee in March 1998, with only two dissensions. However, in June 1998, the influential Wall Street Journal editorial page opined that the Clinton administration intended to “get her on to the Second Circuit, then elevate her to the Supreme Court as soon as an opening occurs”; the editorial criticized two of her district court rulings and urged further delay of her confirmation. The Republican block continued.
Ranking Democratic committee member Patrick Leahy objected to Republican use of a secret hold to slow down the Sotomayor nomination, and Leahy attributed that anonymous tactic to GOP reticence about publicly opposing a female Hispanic nominee. The prior month, Leahy had triggered a procedural delay in the confirmation of fellow Second Circuit nominee Chester J. Straub—who, although advanced by Clinton and supported by Senator Moynihan, was considered much more acceptable by Republicans—in an unsuccessful effort to force earlier consideration of the Sotomayor confirmation.
During 1998, several Hispanic organizations organized a petition drive in New York State, generating hundreds of signatures from New Yorkers to try to convince New York Republican senator Al D'Amato to push the Senate leadership to bring Sotomayor's nomination to a vote. D'Amato, a backer of Sotomayor to begin with and additionally concerned about being up for re-election that year, helped move Republican leadership. Her nomination had been pending for over a year when Majority LeaderTrent Lott scheduled the vote. With complete Democratic support, and support from 25 Republican senators including Judiciary chair Orrin Hatch, Sotomayor was confirmed on October 2, 1998, by a 67–29 vote. She received her commission on October 7. The confirmation experience left Sotomayor somewhat angry; she said shortly afterwards that during the hearings Republicans had assumed her political beliefs based on her being a Latina: "That series of questions, I think, were symbolic of a set of expectations that some people had [that] I must be liberal. It is stereotyping, and stereotyping is perhaps the most insidious of all problems in our society today."
Over her ten years on the circuit court, Sotomayor has heard appeals in more than 3,000 cases and has written about 380 opinions where she was in the majority. The Supreme Court reviewed five of those, reversing three and affirming two—not high numbers for an appellate judge of that many years and a typical percentage of reversals.
Sotomayor's circuit court rulings have led to her being considered a political centrist by the ABA Journal and other sources and organizations. Several lawyers, legal experts, and news organizations identify her as someone who has liberal inclinations. In any case, the Second Circuit's caseload typically skews more toward business and securities law rather than hot-button social or constitutional issues. Sotomayor has tended to write narrowly formed rulings that rely upon close application of the law rather than import general philosophical viewpoints. A Congressional Research Service analysis found that Sotomayor's rulings defied easy ideological categorization, but did show an adherence to precedent, an emphasis on the facts of a case, and an avoidance of overstepping the circuit court's judicial role. Unusually, Sotomayor reads through all the supporting documents of cases under review; her lengthy rulings explore every aspect of a case and tend to feature leaden, ungainly prose. Some legal experts have said that the attention to detail and re-examining of facts of a case in her rulings came close to overstepping the traditional role of appellate judges.
Across some 150 cases involving business and civil law, Sotomayor's rulings are generally unpredictable and do not represent consistently pro-business or anti-business tendencies. Sotomayor's influence in the federal judiciary, as measured by the number of citations of her rulings by other judges and in law review articles, has increased significantly during the length of her appellate judgeship and has been greater than that of some other prominent federal appeals court judges. Two academic studies have shown that the percentage of Sotomayor's decisions that override policy decisions by elected branches is the same as or lower than that of other circuit judges.
Sotomayor was a member of the Second Circuit Task Force on Gender, Racial and Ethnic Fairness in the Courts. In October 2001, she presented the annual Judge Mario G. Olmos Memorial Lecture at UC Berkeley School of Law; titled "A Latina Judge's Voice", it was published in the Berkeley La Raza Law Journal the following spring. In the speech, she discussed the characteristics of her Latina upbringing and culture and discussed the history of minorities and women ascending to the federal bench. She said the low number of minority women on the federal bench at that time was "shocking". She then discussed at length how her own experiences as a Latina might affect her decisions as a judge. In any case, her past background in activism has not necessarily influenced her rulings: a study of 50 racial discrimination cases brought before her panel showed that 45 of them were rejected, with Sotomayor never filing a dissent. An expanded study showed that Sotomayor has decided 97 cases involving a claim of discrimination and has rejected those claims nearly 90 percent of the time. Another examination of Second Circuit split decisions on cases that dealt with race and discrimination showed no clear ideological pattern in Sotomayor's opinions.
In the Court of Appeals seat, Sotomayor has gained a reputation for vigorous and blunt behavior towards lawyers appealing their cases, sometimes to the point of brusque and curt treatment or testy interruptions. She is known for extensive preparation for oral arguments and for running a "hot bench", where judges ask lawyers plenty of questions. Unprepared lawyers suffer the consequences, but the vigorous questioning is an aid to lawyers seeking to tailor their arguments to the judge's concerns. The 2009 Almanac of the Federal Judiciary, which contains anonymous evaluations of judges by lawyers who appear before them, contained a wide range of reactions to Sotomayor. Comments also diverged among lawyers willing to be named. Attorney Sheema Chaudhry said, “She’s brilliant and she’s qualified, but I just feel that she can be very, how do you say, temperamental.” Defense lawyer Gerald B. Lefcourt said, “She used her questioning to make a point, as opposed to really looking for an answer to a question she did not understand.” In contrast, Second Circuit Judge Richard C. Wesley said that his interactions with Sotomayor had been “totally antithetical to this perception that has gotten some traction that she is somehow confrontational.” Second Circuit Judge and former teacher Guido Calabresi said his tracking showed that Sotomayor's questioning patterns were no different from other members of the court and added, “Some lawyers just don’t like to be questioned by a woman. [The criticism] was sexist, plain and simple.” Sotomayor's law clerks regard her as a valuable and strong mentor, and she has said that she views them like family.
In 2005, Senate Democrats suggested Sotomayor, among others, to President George W. Bush as a nominee acceptable to them to fill the seat of retiring Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.
In the 2002 decision Center for Reproductive Law and Policy v. Bush, Sotomayor upheld the Bush administration's implementation of the Mexico City Policy, which states that "the United States will no longer contribute to separate nongovernmental organizations which perform or actively promote abortion as a method of family planning in other nations." Sotomayor held that the policy did not constitute a violation of equal protection, as "the government is free to favor the anti-abortion position over the pro-choice position, and can do so with public funds."
First Amendment rights
In Pappas v. Giuliani (2002), Sotomayor dissented from her colleagues’ ruling that the New York Police Department could terminate an employee from his desk job who sent racist materials through the mail. Sotomayor argued that the First Amendment protected speech by the employee “away from the office, on [his] own time,” even if that speech was "offensive, hateful, and insulting," and that therefore the employee's First Amendment claim should have gone to trial rather than being dismissed on summary judgment.
In 2005, Judge Sotomayor wrote the opinion for United States v. Quattrone. Frank Quattrone had been on trial on charges of obstructing investigations related to technology IPOs. Some members of the media had wanted to publish the names of the jurors deciding Quattrone's case, and a district court had issued an order to forbid the publication of the juror's names. In United States v. Quattrone, Judge Sotomayor wrote the opinion for the Second Circuit panel striking down this order on First Amendment grounds, stating that the media should be free to publish the names of the jurors. The first trial ended in a deadlocked jury and a mistrial, and the district court ordered the media not to publish the names of jurors, even though those names had been disclosed in open court. Judge Sotomayor held that although it was important to protect the fairness of the retrial, the district court's order was an unconstitutional prior restraint on free speech and violated the right of the press to "to report freely on events that transpire in an open courtroom."
In 2008, Sotomayor was on a three-judge panel in Doninger v. Niehoff that unanimously affirmed, in an opinion written by Second Circuit Judge Debra Livingston, the district court's judgment that Lewis S. Mills High School did not violate the First Amendment rights of a student when it barred her from running for student government after she called the superintendent and other school officials "douchebags" in a blog post written while off-campus that encouraged students to call an administrator and "piss her off more". Judge Livingston held that the district judge did not abuse her discretion in holding that the student's speech "foreseeably create[d] a risk of substantial disruption within the school environment", which is the precedent in the Second Circuit for when schools may regulate off-campus speech. Although Sotomayor did not write this opinion, she has been criticized by some who disagree with it.
Second Amendment rights
Sotomayor was part of the three-judge Second Circuit panel that affirmed the district court's ruling in Maloney v. Cuomo (2009). Maloney was arrested for possession of nunchaku, which are illegal in New York; Maloney argued that this law violated his Second Amendment right to bear arms. The Second Circuit's per curiam opinion noted that the Supreme Court has not, so far, ever held that the Second Amendment is binding against state governments. On the contrary, in Presser v. Illinois, a Supreme Court case from 1886, the Supreme Court held that the Second Amendment "is a limitation only upon the power of Congress and the national government, and not upon that of the state." With respect to the Presser v. Illinois precedent, the panel stated that only the Supreme Court has "the prerogative of overruling its own decisions," and the recent Supreme Court case of District of Columbia v. Heller (which struck down the district's gun ban as unconstitutional) did "not invalidate this longstanding principle." The panel upheld the lower court's decision dismissing Maloney's challenge to New York's law against possession of nunchaku. On June 2, 2009, a Seventh Circuit panel, including the prominent and heavily cited judges Richard Posner and Frank Easterbrook, unanimously agreed with Maloney v. Cuomo, citing the case in their decision turning back a challenge to Chicago's gun laws and noting the Supreme Court precedents remain in force until altered by the Supreme Court itself.
Fourth Amendment rights
In N.G. & S.G. ex rel. S.C. v. Connecticut (2004), Sotomayor dissented from her colleagues’ decision to uphold a series of strip searches of “troubled adolescent girls” in juvenile detention centers. While Sotomayor agreed that some of the strip searches at issue in the case were lawful, she would have held that due to “the severely intrusive nature of strip searches,” they should not be allowed “in the absence of individualized suspicion, of adolescents who have never been charged with a crime.” She argued that an "individualized suspicion" rule was more consistent with Second Circuit precedent than the majority's rule.
In Leventhal v. Knapek (2001), Sotomayor rejected a Fourth Amendment challenge by a U.S. Department of Transportation employee whose employer searched his office computer. She held that, “Even though [the employee] had some expectation of privacy in the contents of his office computer, the investigatory searches by the DOT did not violate his Fourth Amendment rights” because here “there were reasonable grounds to believe” that the search would reveal evidence of “work-related misconduct.”
Alcohol in commerce
In 2004, Sotomayor was part of the judge panel that ruled in Swedenburg v. Kelly that New York's law prohibiting out-of-state wineries from shipping directly to consumers in New York was constitutional even though in-state wineries were allowed to. The case, which invoked the 21st Amendment, was appealed and attached to another case. The case reached the Supreme Court later on as Swedenburg v. Kelly and was overruled in a 5–4 decision that found the law was discriminatory and unconstitutional.
Sotomayor was involved in the high-profile case Ricci v. DeStefano that initially upheld the right of the City of New Haven to throw out its test for firefighters and start over with a new test, because the City believed the test had a "disparate impact" on minority firefighters. (No black firefighters qualified for promotion under the test, whereas some had qualified under tests used in previous years.) The City was concerned that minority firefighters might sue under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The City chose not to certify the test results and a lower court had previously upheld the City's right to do this. Several white firefighters and one Hispanic firefighter who had passed the test, including the lead plaintiff who has dyslexia and had put much extra effort into studying, sued the City of New Haven, claiming that their rights were violated. A Second Circuit panel that included Sotomayor first issued a brief, unsigned summary order (not written by Sotomayor) affirming the lower court's ruling. Sotomayor's former mentor José A. Cabranes, by now a fellow judge on the court, objected to this handling and requested that the court hear it en banc. Sotomayor voted with a 7–6 majority not to rehear it and a slightly expanded ruling was issued, but a strong dissent by Cabranes led to the case reaching the Supreme Court in 2009. There it was overruled in a 5–4 decision that found the white firefighters had been victims of racial discrimination when they were denied promotion.
In Clarett v. National Football League (2004), Sotomayor upheld the National Football League's eligibility rules requiring players to wait three full seasons after high school graduation before entering the NFL draft. Maurice Clarett challenged these rules, which were part of the collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and its players, on antitrust grounds. Sotomayor held that Clarett's claim would upset the established "federal labor law favoring and governing the collective bargaining process."
In Correctional Services Corp. v. Malesko (2000), Sotomayor, writing for the court, supported the right of an individual to sue a private corporation working on behalf of the federal government for alleged violations of that individual's constitutional rights. Reversing a lower court decision, Sotomayor found that an existing Supreme Court doctrine, known as "Bivens"—which allows suits against individuals working for the federal government for constitutional rights violations—could be applied to the case of a former prisoner seeking to sue the private company operating the federal halfway house facility in which he resided. The Supreme Court reversed Sotomayor's ruling in a 5–4 decision, saying that the Bivens doctrine could not be expanded to cover private entities working on behalf of the federal government. Justices Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer dissented, siding with Sotomayor's original ruling.
In Gant v. Wallingford Board of Education (1999), the parents of a black student alleged that he had been harassed due to his race and had been discriminated against when he was transferred from a first grade class to a kindergarten class without parental consent, while similarly situated white students were treated differently. Sotomayor agreed with the dismissal of the harassment claims due to lack of evidence, but would have allowed the discrimination claim to go forward. She wrote in dissent that the grade transfer was "contrary to the school's established policies" as well as its treatment of white students, which "supports the inference that race discrimination played a role".
In Krimstock v. Kelly (2002), Sotomayor wrote an opinion halting New York City's practice of seizing the motor vehicles of drivers accused of driving while intoxicated and some other crimes and holding those vehicles for "months or even years" during criminal proceedings. Noting the importance of cars to many individuals' livelihoods or daily activities, she held that it violated individuals' due process rights to hold the vehicles without permitting the owners to challenge the City's continued possession of their property.
In Brody v. Village of Port Chester (2003 and 2005), a takings case, Sotomayor first ruled in 2003 for a unanimous panel that a property owner in Port Chester, New York was permitted to challenge the state’s Eminent Domain Procedure Law. A district court subsequently rejected the plaintiff's claims and upon appeal the case found itself again with the Second Circuit. In 2005, Sotomayor ruled with a panel majority that the property owner's due process rights had been violated by lack of adequate notice to him of his right to challenge a village order that his land should be used for a redevelopment project. However, the panel supported the village's taking of the property for public use.
In Didden v. Village of Port Chester (2006), an unrelated case brought about by the same town's actions, Sotomayor joined a unanimous panel's summary order to uphold a trial court's dismissal – due to a statute of limitations lapse – of a property owner's objection to his land being condemned for a redevelopment project. The ruling further said that even without the lapse, the owner's petition would be denied due to application of the Supreme Court's recent Kelo v. City of New London ruling. The Second Circuit's reasoning drew criticism from libertarian commentators.
President Barack Obama meets with Judge Sonia Sotomayor and Vice President Joseph Biden prior to an announcement in the East Room, May 26, 2009
Since President Barack Obama's election there had been speculation that Sotomayor could be a leading candidate for a Supreme Court seat if one became available on the court during Obama's term. New York senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand wrote a joint letter to Obama urging him to appoint Sotomayor, or alternatively Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, to the Supreme Court if a vacancy should arise on the Court during his term. The White House first contacted Sotomayor about the possibility of her being nominated on April 27, 2009. On April 30, 2009, Justice David Souter's retirement plans leaked to the media, and Sotomayor received early attention as a possible nominee for the seat to be vacated in June 2009. On May 26, 2009, Obama nominated Sotomayor to the court. She became only the second jurist to be nominated to three different judicial positions by three different presidents.
Sotomayor's nomination won praise from Democrats and liberals, and Democrats appeared to have sufficient votes to confirm her. The strongest criticism of her nomination came from conservatives and some Republican senators regarding a line that she used in some form in a number of her speeches and that became best known for its use in a 2001 Berkeley Law lecture: "I would hope 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." Sotomayor had made similar remarks in other speeches between 1994 and 2003, including one she submitted as part of her confirmation questionnaire for the Court of Appeals in 1998, but they had attracted little attention. The rhetoric quickly became inflamed, with radio commentator Rush Limbaugh and former Republican Speaker of the House of RepresentativesNewt Gingrich calling Sotomayor a "racist" (although the latter later backtracked from that claim), while John Cornyn and other Republican senators denounced such attacks but said that Sotomayor's approach was troubling. Backers of Sotomayor offered a variety of explanations for and defenses of the remark, and White House Press SecretaryRobert Gibbs stated that Sotomayor's word choice in 2001 had been "poor". Sotomayor subsequently clarified her remark via Senate Judiciary Committee chair Patrick Leahy, saying that while life experience shapes who one is, "ultimately and completely" a judge follows the law regardless of personal background. Of her cases, the Second Circuit rulings in Ricci v. DeStefano received the most attention during the early nomination discussion, and in the midst of her confirmation process the Supreme Court overturned that ruling on June 29. Some of the fervor with which conservatives viewed the Sotomayor nomination was due to the history and grievances of federal judicial nomination battles going back to the 1987 Robert Bork Supreme Court nomination.
A Gallup poll released a week after the nomination showed 54 percent of Americans in favor of Sotomayor's confirmation compared with 28 percent in opposition, similar to public support figures for most past nominees who gained Senate confirmation. A June 12 Fox News poll showed 58 percent of the public disagreeing with her "wise Latina" remark but 67 percent saying the remark should not disqualify her from serving on the Supreme Court. The American Bar Association gave her a unanimous "well qualified" assessment, its highest mark for professional qualification. Following the Ricci overruling, Rasmussen Reports and CNN/Opinion Research polls showed that the public was now sharply divided, largely along partisan and ideological lines, as to whether Sotomayor should be confirmed.
Sotomayor before the Senate Judiciary Committee for the first day of hearings on July 13, 2009
Sotomayor's confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee began on July 13, 2009. During them, she backed away from her "wise Latina" remark, declaring it "a rhetorical flourish that fell flat" and stating that "I do not believe that any ethnic, racial or gender group has an advantage in sound judgment." When Republican senators confronted her regarding other remarks from her past speeches, she pointed to her judicial record and said she had never let her own life experiences or opinions influence her decisions. Republican senators said that while her rulings to this point might be largely traditional, they feared her Supreme Court rulings – where there is more latitude with respect to precedent and interpretation – might be more reflective of her speeches. Sotomayor defended her position in Ricci as following applicable precedent. When asked whom she admired, she pointed to Justice Benjamin N. Cardozo. In general, Sotomayor followed the hearings formula of recent past nominees by avoiding stating personal positions, declining to take positions on controversial issues likely to come before the court, agreeing with senators from both parties, and repeatedly affirming that as a justice she would just apply the law. On July 28, 2009, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved Sotomayor's nomination; the 13–6 vote was almost entirely along party lines, with no Democrats opposing her and only one Republican supporting her. On August 6, 2009, Sotomayor was confirmed by the full Senate by a vote of 68 to 31. The vote was mostly along party lines, with no Democrats opposing her and nine Republicans supporting her.
President Barack Obama talks with Justice Sonia Sotomayor prior to her investiture ceremony at the Supreme Court September 8, 2009.
Sotomayor cast her first vote as an associate Supreme Court justice on August 17, 2009, on a stay of execution case. She was formally invested on the court in a September 8 ceremony. Sotomayor heard arguments for her first case on September 9, during a special session of the court. The case, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, involved first amendment rights as it pertains to corporations and campaign finance.
Sotomayor was an adjunct professor at New York University School of Law from 1998 to 2007. There she taught trial and appellate advocacy as well as a federal appellate court seminar. She has been a lecturer in law at Columbia Law School since 1999, a paying, adjunct faculty position. There she created and has co-taught a class called the Federal Appellate Externship every semester since 2000; it combines classroom, moot court, and Second Circuit chambers work. She became a member of the Board of Trustees of Princeton University in 2006. In 2008, Sotomayor became a member of the Belizean Grove, an invitation-only women's group modeled after the men's Bohemian Grove. On June 19, 2009, Sotomayor resigned from the Belizean Grove after Republican politicians voiced concerns over the group's membership policy.
Sotomayor has maintained a public presence since joining the federal judiciary. She has given over 180 speeches since 1993, about half of which either focused on issues of ethnicity or gender or were delivered to minority or women's groups. Her speeches have tended to give a more defined picture of her worldview than her rulings on the bench. The themes of her speeches have often focused on ethnic identity and experience, the need for diversity, and America's struggle with the implications of its diverse makeup. She has also presented her career achievements as an example of the success of affirmative action policies in university admissions, saying "I am the perfect affirmative action baby" in regard to her belief that her admission test scores were not comparable to those of her classmates.
Sotomayor lives in Greenwich Village in New York City and has few financial assets other than her home. She lives in an expensive area, enjoys shopping and travelling and giving gifts, and helps support her mother and her mother's husband in Florida. Regarding her short financial disclosure reports, she has said, "When you don't have money, it's easy. There isn't anything there to report." As a federal judge, she is entitled to a pension equal to her full salary upon retirement.
She continues to take daily insulin injections, but her diabetes is considered to be well controlled, with her A1C levels consistently less than 6.5. Sotomayor does not belong to a Catholic parish or attend Mass, but does attend church for important occasions. She maintains ties with Puerto Rico, visiting once or twice a year, speaking there occasionally, and visiting cousins and other relatives who still live in the Mayagüez area. She has long stressed her ethnic identity, saying in 1996, "Although I am an American, love my country and could achieve its opportunity of succeeding at anything I worked for, I also have a Latina soul and heart, with the magic that carries."
Sotomayor said of the years following her divorce, that "I have found it difficult to maintain a relationship while I've pursued my career." She has talked of herself as "emotionally withdrawn" and lacking "genuine happiness" when living by herself; after becoming a judge, she said she would not date lawyers. In 1997, she became engaged to New York construction contractor Peter White, but the relationship ended by 2000 without their getting married.
Prior to her reported selection as President Obama's nominee, Sotomayor had been appointed as a judge by both Republican and Democratic presidents. In July 2005, a number of Senate Democrats suggested Sotomayor, among others, to President George W. Bush as a nominee acceptable to them to fill the seat of retiring Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. The seat was eventually filled by Judge Samuel A. Alito, Jr. of the Third Circuit.
Since Barack Obama's election, there had been speculation that Sotomayor could be a leading candidate for the Supreme Court seat of Justice David Souter, or for any opening on the Court during Obama's term. On April 9, 2009, New York Senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand wrote a joint letter to President Obama urging him to appoint Sotomayor, or alternatively Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, to the Supreme Court if a vacancy should arise on the Court during his term. On April 30, 2009, David Souter's retirement plans were leaked to the media, and Sonia Sotomayor received early attention as a possible nominee for the seat to be vacated in June 2009. On May 13, 2009, the Associated Press reported that President Obama was considering Sotomayor, among others, for possible appointment to the United States Supreme Court. On May 26, 2009, Obama nominated Sotomayor to the court. If confirmed, this would make her the Supreme Court's first Hispanic American justice.
Reaction to nomination
New York GovernorDavid Paterson applauded President Obama for the decision by saying, “Throughout her impressive life and career, Judge Sonia Sotomayor has demonstrated the integrity, leadership and intellect that make her an outstanding nominee to our nation’s highest court. I congratulate President Obama for his selection of Judge Sotomayor, a native New Yorker whose legal mind will undoubtedly benefit our entire judicial system."
Former Massachusetts GovernorMitt Romney issued a statement saying, "The nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court is troubling. Her public statements make it clear she has an expansive view of the role of the judiciary.
Al Sharpton called the nomination "prudent, groundbreaking and the right choice at this time in our nation's history as we face serious constitutional and legal questions that will impact the lives of Americans for decades to come."
Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said that the nomination "is a powerful message, a powerful message of hope and opportunity of hope through this appointment". With respect to Sotomayor, Gonzales said, "I have no questions in my mind about her qualifications in terms of education, experience. A president is not required to nominate the most qualified person to the court. I think he's obligated to nominate someone who is well qualified, and I think by any measure she is well qualified. I think there are legitimate questions about her judicial philosophy, and again, that will be something that will be examined in the confirmation process".
Ilya Shapiro of the Cato Institute said, "Judge Sotomayor is not one of the leading lights of the federal judiciary and would not even have been on the shortlist if she were not Hispanic."
Pat Robertson, the founder of the Christian Coalition, said “The Republicans have got to take a stand on this one, If they don’t, they can kiss their chances of ever getting back into power away.”
In the United States Senate, which must confirm the nomination, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said "Senate Republicans will treat Judge Sotomayor fairly, but we will thoroughly examine her record to ensure she understands that the role of a jurist in our democracy is to apply the law even-handedly, despite their own feelings or personal or political preferences."
Democratic Senator from Massachusetts, Ted Kennedy, said, "“I strongly support President Obama's historic nomination. Judge Sotomayor's remarkable life story is an inspiring example of the American dream, and she has a highly distinguished legal background. She'll bring intelligence, insight, and experience to the vital work of protecting the fundamental rights and liberties of all Americans. She is eminently qualified for the Supreme Court, and I look forward to her prompt confirmation by the Senate.”
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Democrat Patrick Leahy said he expected Sotomayor to be in the "mold of Justice Souter, who understands the real-world impact of the Court's decisions, rather than the mold of conservative activists who second-guess Congress."
Senate Judiciary Committee member, Republican Orrin Hatch, said he "will focus on determining whether Judge Sotomayor is committed to deciding cases based only on the law as made by the people and their elected representatives, not on personal feelings or politics. I look forward to a fair and thorough process."
Democratic Senator Arlen Specter said, "Her confirmation would add needed diversity in two ways: the first Hispanic and the third woman to serve on the high court."
Democratic Senator Russ Feingold said that "from all accounts, she is a highly qualified and very experienced judge."
Republican Senator John Cornyn said Sotomayor must "prove her commitment to impartially deciding cases based on the law, rather than based on her own personal politics, feelings, and preferences."
Republican Senator Olympia Snowe said of the nomination, "I commend President Obama for nominating a well-qualified woman, as I urged him to do during a one-on-one meeting on a variety of issues in the Oval Office earlier this month".
No hearings have been set by the United States Senate as yet. President Obama has set a deadline for confirmation at the beginning of the recess on August 7, 2009. 
Sonia Sotomayor Supreme Court nomination
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