Sotomayor has also been called "kind of a bully on the bench," according to Rosen. The criticism is not far off the mark, say many lawyers, although some questioned whether that's a bad thing. "Her attitude is likely the best thing that she could bring to the [Supreme] Court," said the lawyer and former clerk. "The Supreme Court, especially its left wing, could use someone who is a little less pretentious and a little more feisty and incautious than the existing cast."
Conservative critics have said that some of her rulings show a lack of support for the police, a charge given little credence by her supporters in law enforcement, including Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau. Sotomayor spent five years as an assistant district attorney in Morgenthau's office, prosecuting robberies, assaults, murders, police brutality and child pornography cases.
Indeed, Sotomayor's record of appealing to Republicans as well as Democrats may be one of her biggest strengths as a nominee. She was named to the district court by a Republican, President George H.W. Bush, and to the appeals court by President Bill Clinton, a Democrat.
It is her impressive rise from poverty, though, that many consider her greatest asset. Her father was a tool-and-die maker, and her mother, Celina, was a nurse in a methadone clinic. She was diagnosed with diabetes at age 8 and her father died a year later, leaving her mother to raise a daughter and younger brother, Juan, alone in a public housing project. (Her brother is now a doctor near Syracuse, N.Y.) Her inspiration to become a lawyer: Perry Mason episodes, in which the attorneys were heroes and the judges always called the shots.
Although Sotomayor has written hundreds of opinions in a 17-year judicial career, her record is remarkable for its lack of controversy. One decision that received early attention was a 1993 ruling in a drug case, in which she threw out evidence obtained in a search because a police detective had lied to obtain the search warrant. Prosecutors agreed to a plea bargain but, at sentencing, Sotomayor criticized the severity of the five-year sentence that the federal guidelines required her to impose.
"The only statement I can make is, this is one more example of an abomination being committed before our sights," she told the defendant. "You do not deserve this, sir."
At Sotomayor's confirmation hearing in 1997, Sen. Jeff Sessions R-Ala., grilled her about that statement, suggesting it showed disrespect for the law. Sotomayor conceded that she should not have said, "Abomination."
In 1994, the judge struck down a state prison rule that prohibited members of a religious sect from wearing colored beads beneath their clothes to ward off evil spirits. A year later, she ruled that the Freedom of Information Act required the government to release the suicide note of former White House lawyer Vincent Foster. Also, in 1995, she ordered Major League Baseball owners to restore free-agent bidding, salary arbitration and other terms of the expired collective-bargaining agreement with players, thereby prompting an end to the 232-day baseball strike.
"You can't grow up in the South Bronx without knowing about baseball," she said during a hearing in the case, according to the New York Times.