Sotomayor Followed Unlikely Path to the Door of the Supreme Court

Sotomayor, 54, would be the first Hispanic to serve on the high court and would join Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as the second woman currently serving.

At a White House announcement Tuesday morning, the president said Sotomayor will have more federal judicial experience than any sitting Supreme Court justice.

Listen to the full announcement from President Obama and Sotomayor:


“Over a distinguished career that spans three decades, Judge Sotomayor has worked at almost every level of our judicial system, providing her with a depth of experience and a breadth of perspective that will be invaluable as a Supreme Court justice,” President Obama said.

But beyond her legal resume, Mr. Obama stressed she will bring to the court “the wisdom accumulated from an inspiring life’s journey.”

Born to a Puerto Rican family, Sotomayor grew up in a public housing project in New York’s South Bronx neighborhood. Her father died when she was nine and her mother is credited with working six days a week to send Sotomayor and her brother to school. In addition to the challenges facing the young Sotomayor, she was diagnosed with diabetes when she was eight years old.

This story of perseverance was one Sotomayor herself touched on in accepting the nomination on May 26.

“This wealth of experiences, personal and professional, have helped me appreciate the variety of perspectives that present themselves in every case that I hear…I strive never to forget the real-world consequences of my decisions on individuals, businesses, and government, Sotomayor said at the press conference.

In addition to her upbringing, Sotomayor has also stressed her ethnic pride, having spoken over the years to many Latino groups about her life experiences and her pride in being Latina.

“I simply do not know exactly what the difference will be in my judging,” she said in a speech in 2002 according to the Associated Press. “But I accept there will be some based on my gender and my Latina heritage.”

But it was television that helped inspired the young Sotomayor to focus on the law — watching episodes of Perry Mason that prompted her to want to become a judge. Her academic career took her to Princeton University and later Yale Law School, but she has said that she was always wondered if she measured up.

“I have spent my years since Princeton, while at law school and in my various professional jobs, not feeling completely a part of the worlds I inhabit,” she said, as quoted by the New York Times.

Following law school she served as an assistant district attorney in New York County. Shortly thereafter she entered private practice in New York, quickly ascending to partner in the firm of Pavia and Harcourt, where she focused on intellectual property cases.

By the early 1990’s, she attracted the attention of political leaders and in 1992 with the support of New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, she was appointed by Republican President George H. W. Bush to be a federal judge for the Southern District of New York.

In 1997, Democratic President Bill Clinton named her judge on the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York. Senate Republicans delayed her confirmation because of the possibility of her becoming a Supreme Court nominee but she was eventually confirmed in 1998 with a 68-28 vote. One of the Republicans who voted against her at the time was Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, who is now the ranking GOP member on the Judiciary Committee.

One case she presided over as an appellate judge involving a discrimination claim against the city of New Haven, Conn., is now before the Supreme Court. The city threw out results of a promotion exam because no minorities scored high enough, causing white firefighters who did well on the evaluation but were denied promotions to challenge the city.

As a federal district judge, Sotomayor ruled with Major League Baseball players over the team owners in the 1995 labor strike that led to the cancellation of the World Series. Her decision to bar teams from using replacement players ended the year-long strike.

President Obama had said he was considering someone outside the judiciary that had real life experience. All of the current justices are former federal appeals court judges.

If confirmed by the Senate, Sotomayor’s addition to the court is not likely to change the ideological makeup because Souter was a reliably liberal vote. Supreme Court justices are appointed for life.