RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
How does a Puerto Rican girl from the tenements of the Bronx end up a Supreme Court justice? Sonia Sotomayor tells that story in her autobiography out this week, "My Beloved World." Yesterday, in her interview with NPR legal affairs correspondent, Nina Totenberg, she talked about her childhood and her school life. Today she talks about her career.
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: After Princeton and Yale Law School, Sotomayor moved on not to a private law firm but to the Manhattan district attorney's office as a baby prosecutor, or as these newbies were known in the DA's office, ducklings. She'd been drawn to the law initially by a defense lawyer, a fictional one at that: Perry Mason.
(SOUNDBITE OF "PERRY MASON" THEME MUSIC)
TOTENBERG: But she liked Mason's foil too, prosecutor Hamilton Burger, because of his interest in justice, not just winning.
And at her confirmation hearing, she even sited this Burger moment.
(SOUNDBITE FROM TV SHOW, "PERRY MASON")
TOTENBERG: As an assistant DA, Sotomayor quickly moved up to prosecuting felonies, but she lost her first two felony jury trials, prompting a visit to her boss for advice.
JUSTICE SONIA SOTOMAYOR: My bureau chief looked at me and said, Sonia, you, in your presentation of a case, not only have to believe that the defendant is guilty, but that it's moral and just to convict them. And that bit of advice was life-altering in my skills as a lawyer. After that, I didn't lose another trial.
TOTENBERG: Sotomayor went on to put in jail some of the most vicious criminals in the city, but after four and a half years she was ready to leave.
SOTOMAYOR: When you are working in criminal law, you are in touch with and a part of the worst parts of humanity. You are seeing people commit some of the most atrocious acts imaginable. And I was seeing myself lose my optimism in humanity. I really wanted to hold on then as I do in this job now to the Sonia that plays to the good in people and so I knew I had to leave criminal law.
TOTENBERG: She went to a small firm, Pavia and Harcourt, that specialized in intellectual property, and she soon became a partner. It was during a visit in Venice for a wedding that she would learn a new life lesson. She'd mastered dealing with her diabetes, a disease that once was fatal or debilitating for young adults, but now was so treatable that she could hide it from most people.
When she failed to show up for one of the planned events in Venice, a friend went to her hotel, and when she didn't answer talked the manager into opening the door. Sotomayor was passed out on the floor. She was rushed to the hospital and quickly recovered.
SOTOMAYOR: But the fact that my friend didn't know what to do when he found me was a wakeup call that I had to be more open about my disease, that I couldn't shut out the people in my life from knowing how to help me if something was wrong.
TOTENBERG: During those years in New York, Sotomayor would dive into personal projects with the same zeal she had when she tackled learning to write English in college. She felt she was a klutz so she took salsa lessons and learned how to dance. She was afraid of the water so she enrolled in a swimming class and became a regular in the pool. She even committed herself to a five-day residential program to stop smoking, and she did something about her clothes, a facet of life she'd always deliberately ignored, believing that she couldn't compete with her stylish mother.
Now, however, she recruited friends to take her shopping and got a sense of her own style. She did it Sonia's way.
SOTOMAYOR: I don't swim well. I'm not the best dancer in the world, but you can manage. And when you can't, you have to find a way around. You can't let a door stop you, and that's what I've spent my life doing, finding a way around it.
TOTENBERG: Meanwhile, at the law firm, it was her mentor who all but ordered her to apply for a federal district judgeship in 1991. She'd always been interested in becoming a judge, but she initially balked, telling him he was crazy.
SOTOMAYOR: I was 37 years old. I couldn't imagine anybody being appointed to the federal bench at 37. And, in fact, the day I walked in, I was the youngest judge on the bench and not by a little, but by a lot. And so I'm thinking just what I said, he's crazy. This is nuts. No one's going to appoint the 37-year-old whose only experience in life has been a former prosecutor and a partner at a law firm.
Thank God I was wrong.
TOTENBERG: Not that being a judge was easy. The first year, she says, there was so much to learn that she sometime had not a headache but a brain ache. It was the steepest learning curve of her life, she says, steeper even than her first year on the Supreme Court.
SOTOMAYOR: That first year on the district court, I wasn't sure my nose was above the water.
TOTENBERG: She would spend 17 years on the trial bench and the court of appeals and then in 2009, President Obama appointed her to the U.S. Supreme Court, the first Hispanic ever to hold the post. Walking into the East Room on the day of the announcement, she couldn't keep pace with the long-legged president and vice president.
SOTOMAYOR: And I whispered, please, and they turned around and looked at me and I said, I can't walk that fast. And they smiled. The moment they smiled, I tell people I had an outer-body experience. It was as if my emotions were so big that if I continued to let them exist in my body, I would stop functioning.
TOTENBERG: So she banished her emotions, as she puts it, to someplace above her head, as she stood next to the president.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I have decided to nominate an inspiring woman who I believe will make a great justice - Judge Sonia Sotomayor of the great state of New York.
SOTOMAYOR: That's the way that I survived probably for a year and a half - the nomination, the confirmation process, the inductions, throwing out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium. All of these were moments I'll treasure forever, but at those moments I couldn't let the emotion overcome me.
TOTENBERG: Oh, and by the way, throwing out that baseball at Yankee Stadium, she learned to do that in the usual Sotomayor way. She'd never thrown a baseball in her life, so...
SOTOMAYOR: I went out on a mound outside the courthouse for 20 minutes every afternoon. I would look up at the windows that looked out at the courtyard and there would be people staring at me and I could see the laughter.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Throwing out today's ceremonial first pitch, Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
SOTOMAYOR: At the end, I couldn't throw from the mound, but I did end up throwing the pitch down the middle, a little to the right, but still in the strike zone.
TOTENBERG: Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.
MONTAGNE: We've been sitting here in out studios looking at some fascinating family photos of Sonia Sotomayor, like the one of the future Supreme Court justice around the age of seven. The photos are at NPR.org. This is NPR News.