Sotomayor: Tough Kid Turns Unintimidated Judge

The Senate Judiciary Committee holds confirmation hearings next week on the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. If confirmed, she would be the 111th justice to serve, the third woman and the first Hispanic. Sotomayor grew up in a tough New York neighborhood but demonstrated that with hard work, she could change her circumstances.

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Next week, the Senate Judiciary Committee holds confirmation hearings on the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor. If confirmed, she would be out of the 111 justices over the years, the third woman and the first Hispanic. In the next two days, MORNING EDITION and ALL THINGS CONSIDERED will take a look at Sotomayor's path to the nomination. NPR's legal affairs correspondent, Nina Totenberg, begins with Sotomayor's life before becoming a judge.

TOTENBERG: By now the Sotomayor saga is lore. Born to Puerto Rican parents, she was raised in the housing projects of the South Bronx. Adversity struck at a young age, Sotomayor was diagnosed with diabetes, and when she was nine, her father died. With her mother working two jobs, Sonia went to Catholic schools, then Princeton where she graduated summa cum laude, then on to Yale where she served as an editor on the prestigious "Law Review."

From there she became a prosecutor in Manhattan, a federal trial judge at age 38, and then a federal appeals court judge. Now, rewind the tape back to those housing projects where her brother Juan, now a doctor, remembers life as a struggle.

Dr. JUAN SOTOMAYOR (Physician): Worrying where you walked on the streets, worrying about people behind you, worrying about being mugged - just being hassled all the time.

TOTENBERG: His sister was his protector and she learned both to negotiate and be a tough guy.

Dr. SOTOMAYOR: I distinctly remember one episode where I was surrounded by kids and she came over saying, you know, listen, if you're going to beat him up you got to beat me up too.

TOTENBERG: She did so well at Cardinal Spellman High School that a nun there suggested she apply to Princeton. According to her friends, her response was: Princeton? What's that? Sonia Sotomayor applied and was accepted with a scholarship. In her first year on the privileged Princeton campus, she later said she felt like she landed on another planet and school was more than an uphill climb. Part of the problem, she later explained was that she didn't write well in English. Determined to fix that, she spent the summer with a Princeton professor, writing an essay a day and having it corrected. By her second year she was beginning to shine, and with other Hispanic students, she pressed the school administration hard to hire more Latino professors. Former Dean of Students, Adele Simmons, says she was not, however, a thorn in the administration's side.

Ms. ADELE SIMMONS (Vice-Chair of Chicago Metropolis 2020): The way in which she raised questions was professional and thoughtful.

TOTENBERG: Besides which, she adds...

Ms. SIMMONS: It's a lot easier for the administration if they do it the way Sonia did than if they occupy your office.

TOTENBERG: By her sophomore year, Sotomayor was asked to be a member of the Joint Faculty Student Disciplinary Committee. And when she graduated summa cum laude, she was awarded the school's most prestigious academic prize for scholarship and leadership, the Pine Prize. At Yale Law School she hit the ground running, according to classmate, Stephen Carter, now a professor there. She was a bit of a grind, spending countless hours in the library. She loved the sport of intellectual argument, and as Carter puts it...

Professor STEPHEN CARTER: She suffers fools. That is to say that she is willing to listen in a thoughtful and respectful way even to people who disagree with her perhaps sharply, even when perhaps, they don't know what they're...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Professor CARTER: ...what they're talking about.

TOTENBERG: Though Carter doesn't remember Sotomayor as an activist, she did take a risky and assertive stand against a major Washington law firm in her last year at Yale. When the firm recruiter asked her a question suggesting that Puerto Ricans and other minorities admitted to school under affirmative action programs might not be qualified, she filed a discrimination complaint. A student faculty panel found her complaint warranted and ordered the firm to write her a letter of apology.

Judge Guido Calabresi was a professor at Yale at the time.

Judge GUIDO CALABRESI (United States Circuit Judge): It certainly was gutsy and it could have hurt her, because other firms, other places, could have said this is a troublemaker.

TOTENBERG: But Calabresi says that Sotomayor had a way of making even a hard point without being confrontational.

Judge CALABRESI: The way that Sonia has always stood up for these positions have been in ways powerful, but friendly, and without that personal edge that says I've been hurt - I need revenge, or something of that sort.

TOTENBERG: In the end, of course, Sotomayor didn't go to a law firm. She went to the bustling Manhattan District Attorneys Office, some 500 lawyers strong, hired personally by the legendary district attorney Robert Morganthal, a Yale grad himself. She was immediately signed to prosecute misdemeanors. Her second case involved an assault charge stemming from an altercation on a subway platform. Representing the defendant was a novice legal aid lawyer name Dawn Carty, who at sentencing, turned in horror to Sotomayor when the judge started talking about jail time.

Ms. DAWN CARTY (Attorney): I was such a baby legal attorney. Nobody I had represented had gone to jail yet.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CARTY: So I looked and I turned and I looked at her and I said jail? And she goes no, no, no, no. She goes judge, I think that probation and this anger management program is suitable. I, you know, he's working. He's supporting his family, blah, blah, blah, blah and I thought wow. This is interesting.

TOTENBERG: Afterwards, the two women went for coffee and became fast friends. Sotomayor would not stay in misdemeanors for long. After six months she was promoted to felonies. Prosecuting these really bad crimes, says her friend, Carty, was a lot easier for Sotomayor. Her first murder case was the so-called Tarzan Case prosecuting a burglar who broke into apartments by swinging into windows, beating and murdering victims a long the way. She was second chair to senior attorney, Hugh Mo, and he liked her style.

Mr. HUGH MO (Attorney): Super gung ho, hardworking, very intelligent, and had this unsatiable(ph) thirst for learning.

TOTENBERG: She had such a talent for working with people - victims, police detectives, forensic experts - that he gave her far more responsibility than he would normally have given someone with her experience. He assigned her 20 witnesses to prepare and handle at the trial which would last more than a month and end in conviction. Mo knew from the get-go that Sotomayor was going places. He laughs when talking about the office photo.

Mr. MO: Sonia Sotomayor propped herself right between the bureau chief and Mr. Morganthal.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MO: That photograph speaks of her ambition.

TOTENBERG: District attorney Morganthal knew from the get-go as well that he had a winner. In a major child pornography case...

Mr. MORGANTHAL: Sotomayor left the jurors in tears over what the defendants had done to child victims.

TOTENBERG: Sotomayor soon got a reputation among judges too he says.

Mr. MORGANTHAL: They would intimidate a lot of young assistant, but nobody intimidated Sonia Sotomayor and she couldn't be pushed around by anybody, by a judge or by defense council.

TOTENBERG: Morganthal says Sotomayor was a woman in a hurry. In part, because she's a diabetic and at that point was not at all sure she would live to an old age. After five years in the DA's office, her life was changing. She was divorced and moved to a private law firm. Interviewed with other professional women on ABC's "Good Morning America," she said she was happy with her life but acknowledged that after graduating from law school she had greater expectations.

Judge SONIA SOTOMAYOR (Federal appeals court judge): I mean I really expected to turn the world on fire.

TOTENBERG: Tomorrow on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, Sotomayor's life starts to fulfill those expectations.

TOTENBERG: Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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