Sonia Sotomayor Biography
Sun Sign: Cancer
Also Known As: Sonia Maria Sotomayor
Born in: The Bronx
Famous as: Judge
Spouse/Ex-: Kevin Noonan (m. 1976–1983)
father: Juan Sotomayor
mother: Celina Báez
siblings: Juan Sotomayor
U.S. State: New Yorkers
education: Yale Law School (1979), Princeton University (1976), Cardinal Spellman High School
Sonia Maria Sotomayor is an American judge currently serving as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. Appointed by President Barack Obama in May 2009 and validated in August 2009, Sotomayor is the first justice of Hispanic ancestry as well as the first Latina to hold such office. The daughter of Puerto Rican-born parents, she was raised by her mother after the untimely death of her father. She received her J.D. from Yale Law School and subsequently started her career as an assistant district attorney in New York before entering private practice in 1984. In 1991, President George W. Bush elected her to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. She was confirmed a year later. Her work in this position prompted President Bill Clinton to nominate her to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in 1997. Despite the initial delay because of the Republican majority in the United States Senate, she was confirmed to the position in 1998. In 2009, following her nomination to the Supreme Court by President Obama, she received confirmation by a vote of 68-31. Throughout her career, Sotomayor has distinguished herself for her work on issues of race, gender and ethnic identity, which she continues to do during her tenure in the Supreme Court. She backed the informal liberal bloc of justices when they showed dissents along the commonly perceived ideological lines. Considered a feminist and minority icon, Sotomayor has drawn severe criticism from American right-wing activists.
- Sonia Sotomayor was born on June 25, 1954, in The Bronx, New York City, to Juan Sotomayor and Celina Báez. She has a brother, also named Juan Sotomayor, who has worked as a physician and university professor in the Syracuse, New York, area.
- Her parents, who were from Puerto Rico, had moved out of the island separately. They eventually met and got married during the World War II in the US. Celina served in the war as a member of the Women’s Army Corps. After the war, she found employment as a telephone operator and then a practical nurse. On the other hand, Juan Sr.’s education did not proceed beyond the third grade. He could not speak English and spent his life working as a tool and die worker.
- As a child, Sotomayor lived in the Puerto Rican communities in the South Bronx and East Bronx. She grew up in a Catholic home and later came to identify herself as a “Nuyorican", a portmanteau of the terms "New York" and "Puerto Rican". Initially, the family stayed in a South Bronx tenement and in 1957, relocated to the well-maintained, racially and ethnically mixed, working-class Bronxdale Houses housing project in Soundview.
- While she had been an exemplary student throughout her academic life, she had various problems at her home. Her father was an alcoholic and her mother was emotionally distant. In those years, the only adult with whom she had a close bond was her grandmother. Sotomayor later stated that her grandmother was the source of “protection and purpose” for her. At the age of seven, she found out that she had type 1 diabetes and immediately started taking insulin injections.
- She lost her father when she was nine years old. Her mother remained distant throughout her young life and the relationship between them would not improve until she was well into her adulthood. However, Celina performed all her duties as a single parent to both her children. She valued education tremendously and got the Encyclopædia Britannica for her children, something that was unheard of in the housing projects back then.
- Sotomayor has stated that her mother has been the greatest inspiration in her life. She was also influenced by the fictional character Nancy Drew. She became interested in becoming a judge after she started watching CBS’ ‘Perry Mason’ television series.
- After the death of her father, Sotomayor took extra efforts to become fluent in English. She attended Blessed Sacrament School, which is a grammar school in Soundview, and was the valedictorian with a near-perfect attendance record. She then studied at Cardinal Spellman High School in The Bronx, where she was part of the forensics team and was chosen as a representative in the student government. In 1972, she graduated high school as a valedictorian.
- Sonia Sotomayor enrolled at the Princeton University on full scholarship in 1972. She later acknowledged that she received the admission partly due to her academic background and party because of affirmative action, which compensated for her standardized test scores not being as good as those of other applicants. Affirmative action would become one of the most important issues for her during her judicial career.
- During the early months at Princeton, she struggled to assimilate. There was a significant cultural shock as Princeton only had a few women students. The number of Latino students was even fewer than that. She had issues with writing and vocabulary and did not possess enough knowledge of the classics. So she worked hard, spending long hours in the library and got a professor to help her out during the summer.
- This was the time when her political opinions began to develop. She was elected to co-chair the Acción Puertorriqueña, a student organization dedicated to building a large, united and healthy Puerto Rican community with a strong cultural identity in the Princeton campus.
- She led the movement that brought a Latino faculty to Princeton. Sotomayor was also active outside the school. She helmed an after-school program for local children and served as an interpreter for the Latino patients at Trenton Psychiatric Hospital.
- In 1976, Sotomayor graduated summa cum laude from Princeton and enrolled at the Yale Law School in the fall of 1976, again on a scholarship. Unlike Princeton, she had no problem adapting to the life at Yale. In fact, she thrived. While she was not one of the star students of her classes, she maintained good grades and was very active on the campus. She co-chaired a group for Latin, Asian, and Native American students and continued to advocate for hiring Hispanic faculty.
- Sotomayor landed her first job as an intern at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, a prominent law firm in New York, after her second year. Her performance there, by her own admission, was not particularly good and she was not offered a full-time position there. She cites this experience as a “kick in the teeth”. In 1979, she earned her J.D. from Yale and a year later, joined the New York Bar.
- Straight out of law school, in 1979, Sonia Sotomayor landed the job of an assistant district attorney under New York County District Attorney Robert Morgenthau. The response to her appointment from her community was conflicting, so were the emotions within her. She had to overcome her inherent shyness and muster enough courage to venture into rough neighbourhoods to interview witnesses.
- In 1983, she was instrumental in convicting the “Tarzan Murderer”, who gained notoriety in the early 1980s for entering into people’s apartments acrobatically and proceeding to rob and shoot the occupants.
- In 1984, she became an associate at a commercial litigation practice group named Pavia & Harcourt. While she had no prior experience in civil litigation, she learned on the job as her firm used her extensively. She was also involved in visible public service roles.
- Despite not being connected to either political party as she was a registered independent, she held several important positions in the state government, including as one of the founding members of the New York City Campaign Finance Board from 1988 to 1992. Between 1980 and 1992, she served on the board of directors of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund.
- While Sotomayor’s impressive credentials had long marked her as a prospective federal district judge, her centrist political views had prevented both parties from recommending her. It all changed when Democratic New York senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan recommended her for a post.
- She was subsequently nominated on November 27, 1991, to a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York by President George W. Bush and was confirmed by the unanimous consent of the US Senate on August 11, 1992. She got her commission the following day.
- Sotomayor’s tenure as a district court judge was mostly uneventful. She demonstrated that she had no qualms about ruling against the government and received high-ratings from liberal public-interest groups, while other groups considered her as a centrist.
- After being nominated by President Bill Clinton to a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit on June 25, 1997, she encountered staunch opposition from the Republican majority in the Senate as they believed Clinton had plans to make her a Supreme Court justice during his presidential tenure. Eventually, however, she was confirmed on October 2, 1998.
- During the ten years she served on the second circuit, over 3,000 cases were brought before her and she penned down about 380 opinions where she was among the majority. She gave rulings on various significant issues, such as abortion, first, second and fourth amendment rights, alcohol in commerce, employment discrimination, civil rights, and property rights.
- After Barack Obama became the 44th President of the United States, Sotomayor started to be seriously considered for a Supreme Court seat. She was nominated by the President on May 26, 2009. While her candidacy was embraced by the Democrats and liberals, it faced heavy criticism from the Republicans and conservatives.
- Right-wing personalities such as Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich called her a “racist”, referring to a comment she had made in a 2001 Berkeley Law lecture, when she had said, “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life.”
- She was confirmed by the full Senate by a vote of 68–31 on August 6, 2009, effectively becoming the first justice of Hispanic ancestry and the first Latina in the Supreme Court. On 8 September, a ceremony was organised to formally welcome and invest her into the Court.
- She administered Vice President Joe Biden’s oath of office for the inauguration of his second term on January 20 and 21, 2013. She is the fourth female Supreme Court judge to have such a distinction.
- Sonia Sotomayor has gradually emerged as the most liberal voice in the US Supreme Court in recent history. She has constantly sided with the progressive side in her rulings. However, that does not mean there have not been any exceptions. Demonstrating individuality, she agreed with Ruth Bader Ginsburg against fellow liberals Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan on the issue of the constitutionality of the Obama health care law favouring the poor and disabled.
- Her other prominent rulings include the 2011 J.D.B. v. North Carolina when the apex court decided that age is relevant when determining police custody for Miranda purposes; the 2012 United States v. Alvarez, which resulted in the Court striking down the Stolen Valor Act; and the 2012 Arizona v. United States, which nullified several features of the Arizona SB 1070 anti-illegal immigration law.
- In 2016, Sonia Sotomayor received the Hispanic Heritage Award for leadership.
- She won the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 9th Annual DVF Awards in 2018.
- Sonia Sotomayor married her high-school sweetheart Kevin Edward Noonan on August 14, 1976, at a small chapel in St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York, only days after she received her graduation degree from Princeton. Noonan later got a degree in biology and became a scientist and patent lawyer. After the marriage, Sonia began using her married name, Sonia Sotomayor de Noonan. They were married for seven years and did not have any children. In 1983, they divorced. The separation was quite amicable.
- In 2013, Sotomayor published her memoir, titled ‘My Beloved World’, through Alfred A. Knopf.
- She has been a life-long fan of the New York Yankees.
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