Sonia Sotomayor made headlines when President Barack Obama nominated her to the Supreme Court in 2009. Once confirmed, she became the first Latina justice to serve on the court. Sotomayor, however, is much more than just a milestone on the Supreme Court (the same is true for other three female justices, as well). And more so than her female court colleagues, Sotomayor’s story is one of overcoming a difficult childhood along her path to law school.
A young Sotomayor poses with her parents
Sotomayor grew up reading Nancy Drew mystery novels, but it was Perry Mason that cemented her interest in law. Her parents were Puerto Rican immigrants who moved to the United States during World War II. They settled their family in the East Bronx projects. Sotomayor’s mother encouraged her children to work hard in school; she bought them an Encyclopaedia Brittanica and sent them to a Catholic school known for producing high achievers. In the case of Sonia, the school worked its magic; Sotomayor graduated valedictorian of her high school in 1972 and headed on towards Princeton.
The Ivy League was an awkward fit at first for Sotomayor; a friend who was the son of Chinese immigrants warned her that isolation would be part of her experience. Sotomayor recalled that she barely raised her hand in class when she first arrived at the Ivy League school. Involvement in Puerto Rican groups on campus helped her build a home at the university. She would graduate with the Pyne Prize, the highest undergraduate honor awarded by Princeton for strong grades and extracurricular involvement, and head on to Yale for law school.
After Yale, Sotomayor found herself working in the DA’s office. The DA at the time, Robert Morgenthau, recalled that judges often pushed around young prosecutors. Sotomayor was an exception; colleagues recalled her as “tough” and “persuasive.” Morgenthau noted that she “stood up to the judges.” Success at the DA’s office led to a later career in private practice. Sotomayor joined the New York firm Pavia & Harcourt in 1984 and made partner in 1988.
Sotomayor as a judge in 1992
Sotomayor was nominated to the District Court in 1991, and had enjoyed a successful career as a judge by the time the Obama administration began considering her for the Supreme Court in 2009. She had already become the judge who “saved” baseball when she halted an MLB strike in 1995 — it was time for her to take her judicial superpowers to the nation’s highest court.
Many other Supreme Court justices wade into their new duties carefully, taking time to develop their voice on the court. Not Sotomayor. The first case she heard was the infamous Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, and Sotomayor didn’t let her freshman status keep her from dissenting from the majority. Over her tenure on the court, Sotomayor has stood up for LGBT+ rights in Obergefell v. Hodges and defended the Affordable Care Act twice. On the court, she still brings a dose of prosecutorial toughness — she has a reputation for being hard on unprepared attorneys. If we’re lucky, we’ll be able to benefit from her toughness on the court for years to come.