President Barack Obama has tapped federal appeals judge Sonia Sotomayor for the Supreme Court, making her the first Hispanic in history picked to wear the robes of a justice. Here are 10 things about her that you should know:
1. HER UPBRINGING: Judge Sonia Sotomayor has arguably lived the American dream. She was born to a Puerto Rican family and grew up in a public housing project in the South Bronx.
Her father was a factory worker with a third-grade education, and died when Sotomayor was nine years old. Her mother raised Sotomayor while working as a nurse. After her father's death, Sotomayor reportedly turned to books for solace, and she says it was her love of Nancy Drew books that ultimately led her to the law.
2. HER EDUCATION: Sotomayor graduated as valedictorian of her class at Blessed Sacrament and at Cardinal Spellman High School in New York. She won a scholarship to Princeton where she continued to excel, graduating summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa. She was a co-recipient of the M. Taylor Pyne Prize, the highest honor Princeton awards to an undergraduate. At Yale Law School, Judge Sotomayor served as an editor of the Yale Law Journal and as managing editor of the Yale Studies in World Public Order.
3. HER WORK OFF THE BENCH: After law school, Sotomayor spent five years as Assistant District Attorney in Manhattan, trying dozens of criminal cases. Robert Morgenthau, who chose her for the position, described her as a "fearless and effective prosecutor." She entered private practice in 1984, working as an international corporate litigator handling cases involving everything from intellectual property to banking, real estate and contract law.
4. HER JUDICIAL EXPERIENCE: As Tom Goldstein of SCOTUSBlog writes, "Almost all of her career has been in public service -- as a prosecutor, trial judge, and now appellate judge. She has almost no money to her name." The White House notes:
If confirmed for the Supreme Court, Judge Sotomayor would bring more federal judicial experience to the Supreme Court than any justice in 100 years, and more overall judicial experience than anyone confirmed for the Court in the past 70 years. ...
In 1998, Judge Sotomayor became the first Latina to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, one of the most demanding circuits in the country. She has participated in over 3000 panel decisions and authored roughly 400 opinions, handling difficult issues of constitutional law, to complex procedural matters, to lawsuits involving complicated business organizations."
(The New York Times has summarized her most notable court opinions and articles.)
5. HER STRUGGLE WITH DIABETES: Sotomayor is a Type One diabetic. She has been open about her diabetes in the past, noting that when she was diagnosed at he age of eight, it foiled her hopes of becoming an investigative detective like her heroine, Nancy Drew. While hardly a debilitating disease -- indeed, recent medical advancements have made it quite manageable to live with -- there remain enough late-in-life health implications to have sparked debate in legal, political and medical circles over whether it should be a factor in her nomination.
6. SOTOMAYOR SUPPORTED BY REPUBLICANS: In 1992, Republican President George H. W. Bush appointed Sotomayor to the District Court for the Southern District of New York.
Later, in 1998, President Bill Clinton nominated her to the 2nd Circuit, and she was confirmed with bipartisan support in a 67-29 vote.
All Democrats voted in favor of Sotomayor (although three did not vote), while Republicans opposed her by a 29-25 majority. Among those Senators who are still in the chamber today, however, Sotomayor's margin of confirmation was a bit more comfortable: 35-11.
Indeed, five current Republican Senators voted in favor of her nomination then: Sens. Collins, Gregg, Hatch, Lugar, Snowe. Among the no votes were current Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, current Minority Whip John Kyl and Sen. Jeff Sessions, currently the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee.
Additionally, the White House points out, "Known as a moderate on the court, Sotomayor often forges consensus and agreeing with her more conservative nominees far more frequently than she disagrees with them. In cases where Sotomayor and at least one judge appointed by a Republican president were on the three-judge panel, Sotomayor and the Republican appointee(s) agreed on the outcome 95% of the time."
7. SOTOMAYOR ON ABORTION, GAY MARRIAGE: Sotomayor's record on two key hot button cultural issues is thin. But, quite notably, her sole opinion regarding abortion was in line with the anti-abortion movement's position. Some details from the anti-abortion site LifeNews.com:
"Despite 17 years on the bench, Judge Sotomayor has never directly decided whether a law regulating abortion was constitutional," the pro-life group Americans United for Life noted in a recent analysis of potential Supreme Court candidates.
Sotomayor participated in a decision concerning the Mexico City Policy, which President Obama recently overturned and which prohibits sending taxpayer dollars to groups that promote and perform abortions in other nations.
Writing for the Second Circuit, Judge Sotomayor upheld the Mexico City Policy, but AUL says the significance of the decision "may be minimal because the issue was largely controlled by the Second Circuit's earlier opinion in a similar challenge to the policy."
AUL notes that Judge Sotomayor also upheld the pro-life policy by rejecting claims from a pro-abortion legal group that it violated the Equal Protection Clause.
That said, pro-choice groups hailed her nomination, with Planned Parenthood declaring that she "understands the importance of ensuring that our Supreme Court justices respect precedent while also protecting our civil liberties."
Sotomayor has also not ruled on any cases involving gay civil rights, but gay legal activists described her positively:
Long-time gay legal activist Paula Ettelbrick said she met Sotomayor in about 1991 when they both served on then-New York Governor Mario Cuomo's advisory committee on fighting bias.
"Nobody wanted to talk to the queer person at that time," said Ettelbrick, who represented Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund. "She was the only one [on the advisory committee] who made a point to come over and introduce herself. She was totally interested [in gay civil rights issues] and supportive."
"From everything I know, Judge Sotomayor is an outstanding choice - fair and aware, open and judicious," said Evan Wolfson, head of the national Freedom to Marry organization. "I believe she has the demonstrated commitment to principles of equal protection and inclusion that defines a good nominee to the Supreme Court. In choosing Judge Sotomayor, the first Latino candidate for the Supreme Court, President Obama has made a strong and appealing nomination that should and will receive the supportof those committed to equality for lesbians and gay men."
8. SOTOMAYOR WOULD BE FIRST HISPANIC JUSTICE: If confirmed, Sotomayor would be the first Hispanic to ever serve on the Supreme Court. Tom Goldstein notes:
To Hispanics, the nomination would be an absolutely historic landmark. It really is impossible to overstate its significance. The achievement of a lifetime appointment at the absolute highest levels of the government is a profound event for that community, which in turn is a vital electoral group now and in the future.
9. SOTOMAYOR "SAVED BASEBALL": "During a brief period in 1995," the New York Times reported, "Judge Sonia Sotomayor became revered, at least in those cities with major league baseball teams. She ended a long baseball strike that year, briskly ruling against the owners in favor of the players." A bit more:
The owners were trying to subvert the labor system, she said, and the strike had "placed the entire concept of collective bargaining on trial."
After play resumed, The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote that by saving the season, Judge Sotomayor joined forever the ranks of Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays, Jackie Robinson and Ted Williams. The Chicago Sun-Times said she "delivered a wicked fastball" to baseball owners and emerged as one of the most inspiring figures in the history of the sport.
10. SOTOMAYOR ON THE CONSTITUTION AND "JUDICIAL ACTIVISM": The ubiquitous conservative attack on Sotomayor stems from a 2005 statement she made describing the role appellate justices have in forming policy, which they claim is akin to an endorsement of "judicial activism."
"All of the legal defense funds out there, they are looking for people with court of appeals experience because the court of appeals is where policy is made," she said, laughing a bit through the next part: "And I know this is on tape and I should never say that because we don't make law. I know. Okay, I know. I'm not promoting it. I'm not advocating it. I know."
But as legal scholars have noted, Sotomayor's statement is entirely factual:
"She's not wrong," said Jeffrey Segal, a professor of law at Stony Brook University. "Of course they make policy... You can, on one hand, say Congress makes the law and the court interprets it. But on the other hand the law is not always clear. And in clarifying those laws, the courts make policy."
Eric Freedman, a law professor at Hofstra University, was equally dismissive of this emerging conservative talking point. "She was saying something which is the absolute judicial equivalent of saying the sun rises each morning. It is not a controversial proposition at all that the overwhelming quantity of law making work in the federal system is done by the court of appeals... It is thoroughly uncontroversial to anyone other than a determined demagogue."
Indeed, during her 1997 confirmation hearing, Sotomayor spoke of her judicial philosophy, saying "I don't believe we should bend the Constitution under any circumstance. It says what it says. We should do honor to it."