As President Obama's pick to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court, federal appeals judge Sonia Sotomayor seems, in many ways, tailor-made for President Obama as a Supreme Court nominee. She's a highly educated, vastly experienced, liberal-leaning Hispanic woman with a compelling personal story, a pragmatic view of the law and a keen sense of how her decisions affect people's lives.
But she has her detractors, on the political left, as well as the right. Hoping for an intellectual heavyweight who can go toe-to-toe with the likes of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, some liberal scholars say Sotomayor, although obviously smart, lacks a dazzling legal mind. Conservatives, on the other hand, read her court decisions as liberal and soft on crime. And some lawyers who have argued before her say she can be a bully on the bench.
Sotomayor's personal story is striking. She was born June 25, 1954, in the Bronx, N.Y., and raised in the Bronxdale housing project by parents from Puerto Rico. She graduated from Cardinal Spellman High School in 1972, from Princeton University summa cum laude in 1976 and from Yale Law School in 1979 after serving as a law journal editor.
She worked as an assistant district attorney in Manhattan from 1979 to 1984 and as an associate and then partner in the New York law firm of Pavia & Harcourt until 1992. That year, she was appointed a judge on the U.S. District Court in Manhattan and, in 1998, she was elevated to the U.S. Court of Appeals, also in Manhattan.
Obama has said that he values judges who are acutely aware of their decisions' real-life impact, and Sotomayor seems to pride herself on that quality. In a November 1998 interview with The Associated Press, she said, "That emotion will never leave me, humility, a deep, deep sense of humility," referring to how she felt signing her first judgment of conviction, an order that sent a drug offender to prison for five years.
"And a deep, deep sense of, there but for the grace of God could I have gone and many that I have loved."
She has also spoken often of how her early poverty and Hispanic heritage have shaped her views. "I have spent my years ... in my various professional jobs not feeling completely a part of any of the worlds I inhabit," she said in a November 2002 interview with The Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education. "We educated, privileged lawyers have a professional and moral duty to represent the underrepresented in our society, to ensure that justice exists for all, both legal and economic justice."
Still, Sotomayor, who's divorced with no children, seems pragmatic in her approach to judging. She called herself "a down-to-earth litigator" in a September 1992 interview with the Los Angeles Daily Journal, adding that, "that's what I expect I'll be like as a judge."
In 2006, having served 14 years on the federal bench, she told The Federal lawyer that, "Once you have been a judge, you understand that whatever your personal views are upon an issue ... few of us can make a decision in the abstract, because that is not the nature of judging."