POLITICS

Sotomayor: Champion Of The Oppressed, Outcasts And Nerds

07/06/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

From her days as a student at Princeton to the weeks after she was contacted about a possibility of serving on the Supreme Court, Judge Sonia Sotomayor has associated herself with and championed the cause of society's oppressed and outcast.

A review of dozens of papers from her written career -- as released by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday afternoon -- show a judge quite cognizant of the barriers that she had to overcome. Sotomayor wrote and spoke dozens of times about her identity as a Puerto Rican and the "shock" she and others felt at the less-than-lofty place they held in America's cultural fabric.

But her writings are not limited to concerns about people who share her background. As a student, lawyer and a judicial star, Sotomayor often commiserated with other minorities who -- through no fault of their own -- found themselves disadvantaged by society. Considered individually, the writings seem like general political reflections. Taken as a whole, however, they provide a unique insight into how Sotomayor has been shaped by her own biography and uses that story as a lens through which to view American society.

As one of Princeton's few female students in the 1970s, Sotomayor described the Ivy League institution as "an alien land." And yet, far from shying away from its somewhat stuffy mores, she attempted to change the culture from within. She became an activist for minority causes. And, as revealed in her Supreme Court questionnaire, she often publicly expressed her disappointment with the school.

Sotomayor wrote several letters to the student newspaper arguing on behalf of minorities. The first dealt with anti-Latino discrimination at the school, lamenting a "lack of commitment" to Puerto Rican or Chicano heritage.

"There is not one Puerto Rican or Chicano administrator or faculty member in the university," the sophomore wrote. "There are two million Puerto Ricans in the United States and two and a half million more on the island itself. Yet there were only 66 Puerto Rican applicants this year, and only 31 Puerto Rican students on campus."

Later, as one of 39 signatories, Sotomayor helped pen another letter to The Daily Princetonian responding to the ransacking of the dorm room of two gay students by a group of eight colleagues.

"Intimidation of those courageous enough to express their views, violence directed against unpopular associations, midnight criminal assaults on private residences --- these speak for themselves," the letter reads. "The entire university community should be angry, and disgusted, that this kind of action has occurred at Princeton."

As a young prosecutor in Manhattan and on the bench, Sotomayor continued to come back to the themes that underscored those two letters. Traditions weren't always just. Often, they were oppressive.

In the early 1990's she spoke at a forum entitled "Facing the '90s as a Woman Lawyer in Corporate Law Practice," discussing the difficulties of being a female in a largely male profession. In 1998, she participated in a similar panel discussion, titled, "Beyond the Glass Ceiling for Women and Other Minorities." That same year, she partook in a program called "Breaking Down Barriers," in which she expressed her conviction that her confirmation to the Second Circuit was delayed in the U.S. Senate because of race.

"I was dealt with on the basis of stereotypes... and it was painful... and not based on my record," she said. "I got a label because I was Hispanic and a woman and [therefore] I had to be liberal."

The observations were not strictly autobiographical and they sometimes reflect her worldview. In a 2002 speech titled "A Latina Judge's Voice," she argued that "America has a deeply confused image of itself that is in perpetual tension."

"We are a nation that takes pride in our ethnic diversity," she said, "recognizing its importance in shaping our society and in adding richness to its existence. Yet, we simultaneously insist that we can and must function and live in a race and color-blind way that ignore these very differences that in other contexts we laud."

Now, seven years later, Sotomayor finds herself on the cusp of being in a unique place to affect this "deeply confused" America. And as she starts her confirmation process for the U.S. Supreme Court, don't be surprised if she holds to this long-held vision. On May 7, 2009, roughly ten days after the Obama White House first contacted her about a vacancy on the Court, Sotomayor participated in a discussion about a radio documentary entitled "Nerds in the Hood." She praised the work for placing an honest and sympathetic light on the difficulties of growing up in poverty.

"As you listen to the excerpt that we will hear tonight, I hope all of you in the audience will share my reaction to the production," she said. "Ellis [Cose]'s documentary delivers the message that we should applaud more frequently those people who transform a potentially lost life into a meaningful one -- one in which a person has rejected despair for hope and traded devastating experiences with guns, drugs, and violence for the joy that education, employment, and a commitment to doing good brings."

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