Housing Project Part Of 'Inspiring Life's Journey'

Judge Sonia Sotomayor's road to a U.S. Supreme Court nomination began in a Bronx, N.Y., housing project. President Obama nominated her for the seat of retiring Justice David Souter on Tuesday. Obama said her early life in the housing project was part of the "wisdom accumulated from an inspiring life's journey."

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DAVID GREENE, host:

Sonia Sotomayor's journey to Supreme Court nominee began in the Bronx that's where NPR's Mike Pesca takes us.

(Soundbite of moving vehicles)

MIKE PESCA: The music spills out of a fifth storey window of Building 14 of the Bronxdale Houses. The elevator distress call is not part of the original mix. The visual landscape is of playgrounds and lawns, but also lots of garbage on the ground and graffiti on the signs that read New York City Housing Authority. Rosalind Hobbs(ph) has been a resident since 1971, when Sonia Sotomayor lived here.

How were things then?

Ms. ROSALIND HOBBS: Better than this. That's all I can tell you. Way better than this.

PESCA: The Bronxdale Houses were only a couple of years old with the Sotomayor family moved in in 1954. Not all of the 28 buildings were even totally constructed at the time. Lloyd Ultan is the Bronx's official historian.

Professor LLOYD ULTAN (Historian): These were housing projects for the deserving poor. People who had jobs, were working, intact families, people were actually screened. In a sense, these people were poor but upwardly mobile.

PESCA: That describes the Sotomayors. Sonia's father, a factory worker, died when she was 9. Her mother was a nurse. The family emphasis on education would logically steer a young Catholic girl to one place in the Bronx in 1968. Cardinal Spellman High School had a reputation as a rigorous Catholic high school. Rita Milo, then Rita Sicurella, says no one at Cardinal Spellman cared that Sotomayor came from the projects.

Ms. RITA SICURELLA: The school is very academically based, so we really cut - it wasn't where you came from, it was what you could do. She was always careful and precise, and she would always question. And she was always seeking that next answer.

PESCA: Sotomayor was active in forensics and student government and fit in well in the school, which actively sought out minority and disadvantaged students as part of its mission. Angela Longerew(ph), also a member of the class of '72, remembers the push towards affirmative action.

Ms. ANGELA LONGEREW: It wasn't something that I was really happy with. I felt like there was a double standard, you know, my level of achievement wasn't measured the same way because I was not a minority. But in all fairness to Sonia Sotomayor, she - to her credit, she made the most of the opportunities that were afforded to her by these programs.

PESCA: One manifestation that Longerew remembers is that the speaker slot at graduation went to someone other than the student with the highest grade point average.

Ms. LONGEREW: Well, they offered the opportunity to make the speech to people who were willing to try out. And in this way, even if you did not rank first you had an opportunity to make the valedictory address.

PESCA: And so who did wind up making the valedictory?

Ms. LONGEREW: Sonia Sotomayor.

PESCA: And who ranked first? Angela Longerew, who's put the graduation speech issue behind her. Though it is funny, she says, that yesterday all of her old friends got in touch to joke, if only they had let you speak, you'd be on the Supreme Court.

But the more serious point, Longerew says, is that Sotomayor embodies exactly the experiment an institution like Cardinal Spellman High School was engaged in. She took advantage of all her opportunities, and Longerew says she never doubted that her former classmate would get far in life.

Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.

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Sotomayor: 'Always Looking Over My Shoulder'

Judge Sonia Sotomayor receives an honorary degree from Pace University in 2003 i i

Judge Sonia Sotomayor receives an honorary degree from Pace University at a 2003 commencement ceremony. Courtesy Pace.edu hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy Pace.edu
Judge Sonia Sotomayor receives an honorary degree from Pace University in 2003

Judge Sonia Sotomayor receives an honorary degree from Pace University at a 2003 commencement ceremony.

Courtesy Pace.edu

At A Glance

Age: 54; born June 25, 1954, in New York City

  

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."

Judge Sonia Sotomayor is a self-described "Newyorkrican," the daughter of parents who moved from Puerto Rico to the Bronx. In speeches to Latino groups, she has echoed some of the same themes as President Obama about growing up as a minority and feeling she never completely fit in anywhere.

"I am always looking over my shoulder, wondering if I measure up," she has said.

Sotomayor, 54, was nominated by Obama Tuesday to replace retiring Justice David Souter. If confirmed, she will be the first Hispanic justice — and third woman — to serve on the nation's highest court.

As a judge, Sotomayor has earned praise for being thoroughly prepared and for her penetrating questioning, though some have described her courtroom style as overly aggressive. In announcing his choice, Obama praised her "rigorous intellect" and called her an "inspiring" woman with a "depth of perspective."

A Childhood In The Bronx

Sotomayor was raised in the New York City borough of The Bronx. She was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes at age 8. Her father, a factory worker with a third-grade education who did not speak English, died a year later. Her mother, a nurse, raised her two children in a Bronx housing project near Yankee Stadium, working six days a week to send Sonia and her brother to Catholic school.

Sotomayor has recalled how her mother always kept a pot of rice and beans on the stove for friends, and how her family had the only set of encyclopedias in the neighborhood.

It was as a child that Sotomayor became intrigued by the law. She first wanted to be a police detective, inspired by Nancy Drew mysteries. But a doctor suggested that would be difficult with diabetes. So Sotomayor settled on being a judge instead, after watching an episode of the popular TV show Perry Mason.

"I realized that the judge was the most important player in that room," she said.

Sotomayor graduated summa cum laude from Princeton University and then Yale Law School. She has described her time at Princeton as life-changing, like "a visitor landing in an alien country," and said she was too intimidated to ask any questions the first year. Sotomayor married while in college, then divorced a few years later.

Judicial Experience

Obama administration officials say Sotomayor would bring more judicial experience to the Supreme Court than any justice confirmed in the past 70 years. She has worked in Manhattan as a prosecutor and then an attorney and has spent the past 17 years as a judge.

In 1991, President George H.W. Bush nominated Sotomayor as a judge on the U.S. District Court in New York, making her the youngest judge in that district. She won Senate confirmation without dissent. But that wasn't the case in 1998, when President Bill Clinton named her to the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Republicans delayed her confirmation for more than a year, in part because they believed that as a Hispanic she could well be chosen later for the Supreme Court. She was eventually confirmed, 67-29.

As Obama noted in his remarks Tuesday, one of Sotomayor's most famous rulings earned her gratitude from baseball fans, when she ended a Major League Baseball strike in 1995. "Some say that Judge Sotomayor saved baseball," Obama said to applause. A lifelong fan of the game, she described her decision as being like "when you see an outfielder backpedaling and jumping up to the wall and time stops for an instant as he jumps up and you finally figure out whether it's a home run, a double or a single off the wall or an out."

Sotomayor also sided last year with the city of New Haven, Conn., in a discrimination case brought by white firefighters. After too few minorities scored high enough on a promotion exam, the city threw out the results. Conservatives have criticized that ruling and the case is, ironically, now before the Supreme Court.

The conservative Judicial Confirmation Network calls Sotomayor a "liberal judicial activist of the first order." Many expect that, like Souter, she would routinely side with the court's four-member liberal minority.

But not all her rulings can be so neatly categorized. In 2002, Sotomayor ruled against an abortion rights group that had challenged a federal policy prohibiting the denial of U.S. funds to foreign groups that supported abortion. In her opinion, Sotomayor wrote that the government was free to favor the anti-abortion position if it chose.

In other high-profile rulings, she ruled that The Wall Street Journal had the right to publish the suicide note of former Clinton White House aide Vincent Foster, and she ruled against a state prison regulation that prevented people from wearing beads to thwart evil spirits. She also allowed the display of a 9-foot-tall menorah in a suburban park.

A First For Hispanics

Until now, some Hispanics had been disappointed in Obama's failure to appoint more Latinos to his Cabinet and other high offices. But the nomination of Sotomayor may go a long way to assuage that.

Hispanics turned out in huge numbers for Obama in last fall's election, and they are the nation's fastest-growing minority. Sotomayor has spoken publicly about her pride in being Latina and admitted that it no doubt affects how she views cases from the bench.

"I simply do not know exactly what the difference will be in my judging," she said in a speech in 2002, "but I accept there will be some based on my gender and my Latina heritage."

Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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