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High Court Nominee's Success Against Odds

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High Court Nominee's Success Against Odds

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High Court Nominee's Success Against Odds

High Court Nominee's Success Against Odds

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When President Obama announced Sonia Sotomayor as his first nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court, he laid out her life story in rich detail. Raised in a Bronx, N.Y., housing project by a single mother of Puerto Rican descent, an early Nancy Drew aficionado and a lifelong Yankees fan, Sotomayor went on to succeed at Princeton and Yale.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

Less than a month after Supreme Court Justice David Souter announced his retirement, President Obama has chosen a replacement.

President BARACK OBAMA: I've decided to nominate an inspiring woman who I believe will make a great justice, Judge Sonia Sotomayor…

(Soundbite of applause)

Pres. OBAMA: …of the great state of New York.

BLOCK: If confirmed, Sotomayor would be the first Hispanic justice, and only the third woman to sit on the country's highest court. She's 54 years old.

NORRIS: This morning, President Obama spoke about what he called her extraordinary journey. Born in the South Bronx to Puerto Rican parents, raised in a public housing project, educated at Princeton and Yale. She served as a public prosecutor, a corporate litigator, a trial judge and for the past decade, a federal appeals judge.

Pres. OBAMA: Walking in the door, she would bring more experience on the bench, and more varied experience on the bench, than anyone currently serving on the United States Supreme Court had when they were appointed.

BLOCK: Today, Sonia Sotomayor said that wealth of experience has informed her work as a judge.

Judge SONIA SOTOMAYOR (U.S. Circuit Court): It has helped me to understand, respect and respond to the concerns and arguments of all litigants who appear before me, as well as to the views of my colleagues on the bench.

BLOCK: The president's choice has pleased Senate Democrats. Republicans, meanwhile, are expressing caution.

NORRIS: Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell promised fair treatment of Sotomayor, and a thorough examination of her record.

Senator MITCH MCCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky): What I would like to see is somebody who, I think, can put aside their personal views and their political philosophy, and call it based upon what the law says. Some judges do a better job of that than others. I really don't know enough about the nominee to call it yet.

BLOCK: Well, we're going to begin learning about Sonia Sotomayor by looking at her history. As NPR's Robert Smith reports, the White House is focusing on her life journey.

ROBERT SMITH: As President Obama knows, a compelling personal story can get you far in politics. So the president went into detail this morning, talking up Sotomayor's rags-to-robe story.

Pres. OBAMA: What Sonia will bring to the court, then, is not only the knowledge and experience acquired over a course of a brilliant legal career, but the wisdom accumulated from an inspiring life's journey.

SMITH: At the announcement this morning, Judge Sotomayor singled out her mother as the starting point and inspiration for that journey. Sotomayor's father died when she was 9. And her mother worked as a nurse at a methadone clinic to send her and her brother to a prestigious Catholic school.

Judge SOTOMAYOR: My mother has devoted her life to my brother and me. She worked, often, two jobs to help support us after Dad died. I have often said that I am all I am because of her. And I am only half the woman she is.

SMITH: Sotomayor often tells the story of how, when she was growing up in the South Bronx, her only conception of the legal profession came from TV and books - that she loved Perry Mason and Nancy Drew. But President Obama says even then, she faced a hurdle.

Pres. OBAMA: When she was diagnosed with diabetes at the age of 8, she was informed that people with diabetes can't grow up to be police officers or private investigators like Nancy Drew. And that's when she was told she'd have to scale back her dreams.

SMITH: But her life after that was anything but scaled back. With the help of scholarships, Sotomayor jumped from the South Bronx onto the well-worn, Ivy League path to the judiciary. She attended Princeton, saying later that she felt like a visitor landing in an alien country. She went to law school at Yale. Her first professor was Judge Guido Calabresi, who dug out her final exam to see what he wrote.

Judge GUIDO CALABRESI (U.S. Court of Appeals): My note said that she knows her stuff. She's careful,but makes good, original points as well, a good - underlined - exam.

SMITH: Does that mean you never give a great?

Judge CALABRESI: Oh, I don't give greats.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Judge CALABRESI: Good underlined is as good as I get.

SMITH: Sotomayor became the editor of the Law Review. And her friends and colleagues expected that she would perhaps enter academics or social justice. Instead, she decided to fight crime, becoming an assistant D.A. in Manhattan. During that period, she told the New York Times that she realized that the worst victims of crimes are minorities. She said, quote: No matter how liberal I am, I'm still outraged by crimes of violence.

Cesar Perales knew Sotomayor during this time. He served with her on the board of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Mr. CESAR PERALES (Executive Director, Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund): Sonia used her role as a prosecutor to do what she could to advance justice. And it was, I guess, in a sense, though, a way for her to get back into the real world. She'd spent seven years in the Ivy League. And it was important that she feel grounded in what the world was about.

SMITH: That grounding would also include a stint in private practice before she was appointed to the federal bench by the first President Bush. Guido Calabresi now serves with Sotomayor on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, and says that his former student continues to impress.

Judge CALABRESI: She's a powerful, strong person. She's very smart. And she's changed my mind, and I'm a tough act.

SMITH: But probably not as tough as the next act in the drama of Sonia Sotomayor. The White House wants to have confirmation hearings by mid-July.

Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.

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Obama Chooses Sotomayor For Supreme Court

In Depth

NPR News Coverage Of Obama's Announcement

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NPR Special Evening Coverage

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Sonia Sotomayor

Age: 54; Born June 25, 1954, in New York, N.Y.


Experience: Nominated by President Clinton in 1997 as U.S. Court of Appeals judge for the 2nd Circuit, 1998-present; U.S. District Court judge for the Southern District of New York, 1992-98; private practice, New York City, 1984-92; assistant district attorney, Manhattan, 1979-84


Education: B.A., Princeton University, 1976; J.D., Yale Law School, 1979.


Quote (from 1997 nomination hearing): "I don't believe we should bend the Constitution under any circumstance. It says what it says. We should do honor to it."

'Where Policy Is Made'

Critics point to this comment by Judge Sonia Sotomayor at a 2005 forum at Duke University School of Law, where she talked about why public interest groups like to hire lawyers who have been appeals court clerks:

Sotomayor On Courts Making Policy

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'I Did One Thing Really Wrong'

Sotomayor On Her Biggest Professional Mistake So Far

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President Obama on Tuesday nominated U.S. Circuit Judge Sonia Sotomayor to serve on the Supreme Court, tapping the daughter of Puerto Rican parents to succeed retiring Justice David Souter and become the first Hispanic to serve on the high court.

Calling Sotomayor "an inspiring woman," Obama said that he looked not only at intellect and the ability to be impartial, but at life experience and the ability to relate to ordinary Americans in choosing Sotomayor as his nominee.

At a White House news conference, Sotomayor thanked the president for "the most humbling honor" of her life. "My heart today is bursting with gratitude," she said.

If confirmed by the Senate, the 54-year-old judge will bring nearly 17 years of experience on the federal bench and a history of bipartisan appeal to the high court. She was first appointed to federal bench in the Southern District of New York in 1992 by President George H.W. Bush and was named to the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals by President Bill Clinton in 1998.

Hispanic Groups Laud Choice

Obama said Sotomayor has more experience as a judge than any of the justices had when they were nominated for their positions on the high court.

Hispanic groups lauded the president's choice. "The Supreme Court should reflect the diverse population of the United States to ensure that our nation's highest court understands the unique circumstances of all Americans," said Brent Wilkes, national executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens.

If confirmed, Sotomayor will join Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as the second woman on the current court and the third in history. Sotomayor, like the retiring Souter, is expected to vote with the court liberals.

Republicans are not expected to put up much of a fight against the nomination. Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine said Republicans would have a difficult time taking on a judge that was first appointed to the federal bench by Republican.

"She's been pretty carefully vetted and analyzed already, so I would find it unusual if they were to decide to try to take her on," Kane said.

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele said the upcoming court vacancy provides an opportunity to discuss the role the Supreme Court has in the daily lives of Americans.

"Republicans look forward to learning more about federal appeals court judge Sonia Sotomayor's thoughts on the importance of the Supreme Court's fidelity to the Constitution and the rule of law," Steele was quoted saying on the RNC Web site.

Republicans Want Time For Debate

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said his colleagues will treat Sotomayor fairly but want time to debate her qualifications.

"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," McConnell said in a statement posted on his Web site.

Sotomayor predicted senators would come to see her as an ordinary person who has had some extraordinary opportunities.

"I hope that as the Senate and American people learn more about me, they will see that I am an ordinary person who has been blessed with extraordinary opportunities and experiences," Sotomayor said.

During the East Room announcement, the president cited Sotomayor's educational accomplishments at Princeton University — where she graduated summa cum laude in 1976 — and Yale University Law School. He also said her stint trying criminal cases as an assistant district attorney in Manhattan after her graduation from Yale Law School, corporate law experience and time as a trial judge gave her an edge because she has seen the judicial system from many perspectives.

One of her most prominent rulings came in 1995, when she sided with Major League Baseball players in a labor strike that had led to the cancellation of that season's World Series.

"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," Obama said.

The president also said he was moved by her inspirational personal story.

Sotomayor was raised in a housing project in New York's South Bronx by Puerto Rican parents who came to the United States during World War II. Her father was a factory worker who had a third-grade education and spoke no English. He died when she was 9, a year after she was diagnosed with Type 1, or juvenile, diabetes.

Sotomayor said she was strongly influenced by her mother, who served in the Women's Army Corps and often worked two jobs to support Sotomayor and her brother, Juan.

"I have often said that I am all I am because of her, and I am only half the woman she is," Sotomayor said, recognizing her mother and other family members seated in the audience as the president announced her nomination.

An Upward Career Path

Obama said the couple believed in the American dream and the power of education. Sotomayor attended Catholic school and went on to attend Princeton and Yale.

From 1984 until her appointment to the bench, Sotomayor practiced international business law at the New York-based firm of Pavia & Harcourt LLP. There, she focused on intellectual property issues and litigation and arbitration of commercial and commodity export trading cases, according to her appeals court biography.

Later, Sotomayor became a member of the 2nd Circuit Task Force on Gender, Racial and Ethnic Fairness in the Courts, which was established in 1993 to examine the effect of bias on court employees and litigants. She has also remained active in legal education, serving as an adjunct professor at New York University School of Law from 1998-2007 and as a lecturer-in-law at Columbia Law School since 1999.

She has also served on the Board of Directors of the State of New York Mortgage Agency, the New York City Campaign Finance Board, the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund and the Maternity Center Association.