Sotomayor's Real-World Schooling In Law And Order As an assistant district attorney in Manhattan in the early '80s, Sonia Sotomayor said she had trouble prosecuting cases involving petty crimes that she saw as motivated by poverty. She had no such qualms with felony cases and played a key role in convicting New York's infamous "Tarzan burglar."
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Sotomayor's Real-World Schooling In Law And Order

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Sotomayor's Real-World Schooling In Law And Order

Sotomayor's Real-World Schooling In Law And Order

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The confirmation hearing for Sonia Sotomayor has been scheduled to start on July 13th. And this morning, the White House announced that eight national law enforcement organizations have endorsed her nomination for the Supreme Court. That includes the Fraternal Order of Police and the National Association of District Attorneys.


One of the people who announced the endorsements today was one of Sotomayor's first bosses: Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau.

Mr. ROBERT MORGENTHAU (Manhattan District Attorney): The judge will be the only member of the Supreme Court with experience in trying criminal cases in state courts.

NORRIS: Judge Sotomayor got that experience while working for Morgenthau. He hired her straight out of Yale Law School. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports on Judge Sotomayor's career as a young prosecutor.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: In 1979, when Sonia Sotomayor started working in the D.A.'s office, New York City was a dangerous place. The crime rate was skyrocketing. There were nearly 2,000 homicides a year - that's four times the murder rate in the city today. Drug-dealing was rife. A walk in Central Park after dark was an invitation to a mugging.

Mr. HUGH MO (Former Assistant District Attorney, Manhattan): There was a general pervasive sense of lawlessness, and that was backed up by statistics.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Hugh Mo was an assistant district attorney in Manhattan at the time and was assigned to an unusual case. For more than a year, in 1981 and 1982, a criminal known as the Tarzan Burglar was terrorizing central Harlem. He would swing on ropes tied to rooftops, and break into apartments by crashing through their windows.

Mr. MO: That case is almost like a case that encompasses all that we normally associate with society being engulfed by crimes.

TEMPLE-RASTON: By the time the police arrested a suspect, the Tarzan Burglar had murdered three people, shot at a half a dozen more, and was thought to be behind more than 20 burglaries. In Morgenthau's office, young prosecutors don't try homicides on their own. They have to work with a more senior attorney first. Hugh Mo got the case, and Sotomayor was assigned to help him. This was her first murder case. And Mo said it was a prosecutor's dream.

Mr. MO: You have murders, you have assault, you have robbery, you have burglary, you have weapons possession. You name it, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

TEMPLE-RASTON: Sotomayor threw herself into her work. She visited crime scenes, cataloged evidence, interviewed witnesses. Hugh Mo let her present half the case in court, which rarely happens with a new attorney in that office. The Tarzan Burglar, Richard Maddicks, was convicted. He got 62 years to life. Morgenthau said it was one of the most important cases Sotomayor worked on.

Mr. MORGENTHAU: She handled, you know, a general range of cases. I mean, the two most noteworthy cases were the Maddicks case because of the length of the sentence there and the severity of the crime - he killed several people - and then the first child pornography case under the new New York statute.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That pornography case involved two New York- area residents who were selling pornography, including films featuring children who were as young as 7 years old. Sotomayor won a conviction in that case, too. Morgenthau said Sotomayor impressed not just him, but the other lawyers she worked with.

Mr. MORGENTHAU: As one of the assistants who had gone to college and to law school with her and then came here to the office said, she was always a step ahead of the rest of us. I mean, she was a quick study, a very hard worker, a very good lawyer, and she just did extremely well.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well enough to have Morgenthau assign her to a wide variety of cases. Just six months after she started at the D.A.'s office, she was working felonies, prosecuting - among other things - drug traffickers and child abusers. She took whatever cases came her way.

Mr. MORGENTHAU: If somebody broke the law, she was going to prosecute them.

TEMPLE-RASTON: While it's tempting to do a survey of Sotomayor's time in the D.A.'s office to ferret out some sort of judicial philosophy, it doesn't really work that way. What Sotomayor took from her five years there was an up-close view of what it's like to be on the front lines of the U.S. justice system. That chapter in her life makes her different from most nominees to the high court.

Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News, New York.

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