“after a time you may recognize that the proper measure of success if not how much you’ve closed the distance to some far-off goal but the quality of what you’ve done today.”
The path that led Supreme Justice Sonia Sotomayor to succeed in meeting her goal to become a judge began by developing as a keen observer, and as a rapt listener starting in her early childhood years, along with her intensive book reading, including the Nancy Drew mysteries. She was slowly emerging as a young budding sleuth when she discovered the trial lawyer and detective Perry Mason on TV, as she shares in her book, My Beloved World. With her love for Nancy Drew and Perry Mason, she got hooked on law.
Born in the Bronx on June 25, 1954, of Puerto Rican parents, Justice Sotomayor loved to read. She and her younger brother would sit and read together turning page after page. Both excelled in their schooling. They attended Cardinal Spellman High School located in the Bronx. The Nancy Drew mysteries were like lessons on how to search for clues to solve a mystery. When a television brought the Perry Mason series right into her living room, young Sonia carefully engaged in following every detail of the plot in solving the crime. But it was the power of the judge in defining the consequence of the accused in the Perry Mason television series of the 60’s that indeed caught her attention. From then she dreamed to be a judge one day. She acknowledges the odds being high in reaching the Supreme court as a Latina justice and shares a question posed to her thought, “how do we hold on to dreams that, statistically, are impossible?” (Sotomayor, pg.9).
Sonia Sotomayor graduated from Princeton University summa cum laude, which is awarded to student whos’ grades or accomplishments are the highest in their school.
She was also honored with an invitation to the national honor society Phil Beta Kappa, a membership made of graduates with exceptional academic achievement in the arts and sciences. By 1979, Sotomayor had earned her JD (Juris Doctor) from Yale Law School with both degrees on scholarship from her merits throughout all her schooling. She also earned the Moses Taylor Pyne Honor Prize, the highest award for graduating seniors at Yale.
The thought of being impossible to be a judge, however, didn’t stop her from meeting her goal. At first, she rejected the idea of working in an upscale law office with a lucrative salary. She opted for the opportunity to be in the court room as much as possible to gain the experience to continue her advancement in her career. After a few summer jobs while working on her degree – once she graduated from Yale – Justice Sotomayor decided on working at the District Attorney’s office in New York City. She was familiar with the city having been raised in the Bronx, one of the five boroughs of NYC. It was only a subway ride away from the home where she was raised. However, she was married in the summer after Yale, and was living with her husband near
Princeton University where he attended, and from where she would commute. The daily round trip to lower Manhattan proved to be too taxing with a job that was full of excitement, challenge, and long hours. She and her husband Kevin Noonan realized they were on different career paths, and each needed to live closer to where they could pursue their career. They officially ended the marriage after seven years.
Sotomayor grew up to be self-sufficient. As a diabetic since early childhood, she learned to give herself the injections of insulin to help reduce the constant quarreling of her parents over who would give young Sonia her medication, among other issues. Her mother worked the night shift as a practical nurse to avoid the arguments. Sotomayor’s father was the afterschool caretaker, but most days they had dinner at his mother’s apartment. Sonia and her brother enjoyed watching TV with their grandmother since there wasn’t one at their own home. At home Sonia and her brother did their homework, read books, and added TV when her father finally bought one. He lived mostly in his bedroom. He grew to be an alcoholic and in time died while Sotomayor was still in middle school.
Soon after the burial, her mother switched to the day shift so she could be home for her children. The now widowed, Mrs. Celina Sotomayor fell into depression that left Sonia and her brother to entertain themselves buy doing homework, reading with the television on in the background. Now it was just the three of them. Once her mother recovered from her depression, they would begin a refreshed life in a new building complex but isolated from any neighborhood activities due to the distance of where the complex was located. So, they maintained the same afterschool routine of homework, reading that included the newly acquired Encyclopedia Britannia, and television until Sonia decided to get her first summer job, which would help a little, financially. Wherever she would work she was noticed as a bright, strong-minded child. By the time she was filling out applications for college she worked in the business office at the hospital where her mother worked as a practical nurse, but soon she would be on her way to college. She graduated in 1972 as Valedictorian from Cardinal Spellman High School.
Princeton University was her choice receiving offers from her ivy league only – university applications. In her first year, she was an average student. With each year she excelled into graduating with honors and receiving the highest award for graduating students. She continued her education at Yale Law School to receive her JD, and again earning the highest award for graduating seniors.
It was by chance that she had the opportunity to work for the district attorney’s office after graduating from Yale. While taking a bathroom break from studying during her second year at Yale, walking the hall she discovered a reception with a guest speaker about to begin. He was the district attorney from New York. She decided to stay and listen hoping to get some of the snacks that were usually offered after a reception. But it was the information that was being offered that caught her ear – as an assistant DA, “within your first year on the job” – “you’ll be going to trial,” (Sotomayor, pg. 282). This was the opportunity to get inside the court room and begin her career toward being a judge.
Thus began the career of Sonia Sotomayor. She was interviewed the following day and once graduated, she worked as a prosecuting assistant district attorney working in criminal law. It was the beginning of preparing cases to present in the court. The amount of backlog of cases gave the assistant district attorney much experience in the court room in her first years as a lawyer. The work was endless, but she worked there until 1984 when it was time for a break from criminal law. To pursue her dream of being a judge she knew she had to have a broader experience base. So began her next step into international commercial law where she served as an associate, then a partner at Pavia & Harcourt until 1992, where she handled the Fendi account as the client. While working the Fendi account she became friends with the family and had the opportunity to travel and to make life-long friends having the time to socialize in a less stressful atmosphere.
Her next crucial opportunity came at age 36. She was vetted and presented to President George H. W. Bush for nomination as a federal district court judge in New York, by Senator Moynihan and the judicial selection committee of that time. With her maybe short but broad experience including pro bono work serving on the board of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the State of New York Mortgage Agency, and the New York City Campaign Finance Board, among others, Sotomayor also had the Hispanic criteria they wanted to fill. She became the first Latina to be confirmed on August 12, 1992, as a judge to serve in the United States first district court, the District Court for the Southern District of New York to perform the duties faithfully under the Constitution.
Sotomayor served on numerous important cases for the next six years until 1998. Again, Senator Moynihan recommended her to President Clinton who nominated her to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit where she heard over 3000 cases and wrote over 380 opinions until 2009.
Between 1998 and 2007 she was an adjunct professor at New York University School of Law and as a lecturer at Columbia Law School. It was rumored that due to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s pancreatic cancer, that Sotomayor was being considered, but in fact it was the retirement of Justice Souter that created the opening for President Barack Obama to nominate Sotomayor as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. She assumed her position on August 8, 2009. By the age of 54, Justice Sotomayor surpassed her goal to become the first Latina and third woman to be elected as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.
Supreme Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor is among four other women Supreme Justices: Sandra Day O’Connor (1981-2006), Ruth Bader Ginsburg (1993-2020), Elena Kagan (2010 -), and Amy Coney Barret (2020 -). Justice Sotomayor has a long list of achievements and awards, including 12 honorary law degrees, two books published, hundreds of speeches and written many articles. In 2019 she was inducted into the
National Women’s Hall of Fame. She administered the oath of office to Vice President Joe Biden (2013), and to Vice President Kamala Harris in 2021. To read her opinions and rulings, visit the website of the Supreme Court of the United States – https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/slipopinion/21 (Mar. 23, 2022).
Sotomayor, Sonia, My Beloved World, Alfred A. Knopf, 2013, New York
“and after a time you may recognize that the proper measure of success if not
how much you’ve closed the distance to some far off goal but the quality of what
you’ve done today.” (page 497).
“Sonia Sotomayor.” Oyez, www.oyez.org/justices/sonia_sotomayor. Accessed 23 Mar. 2022.