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Sonia Maria Sotomayor - First Hispanic Supreme Court Justice

Staff Writer
Runnels County Register
Sonia Maria Sotomayor is the first Hispanic justice on the United States Supreme Court Justice.

Soniar Maria Sotomayor is the first Hispanic Supreme Court Justice in the history of the United States. She was born on June 25, 1954 in the Bronx borough in New York City.

Sotomayor’s parents, Juan Sotomayor and Celine Báez, were immigrants from Puerto Rico. Sotomayor’s parents met and married in the US during World War II. Her father only completed school up to the third grade. Her mother was a telephone operator and later, a practical nurse. Sotomayor has a younger brother, Juan, who is a physician and university professor in Syracuse, NY.

Sotormayor’s upbringing in New York was in tenements within the Puerto Rican communities. Later, the family lived in housing projects. Her mother, Celina, stressed the value of education to her children and bought them Encyclopædia Britannica.

Sotomayor would graduate from Cardinal Spellman High School as valedictorian of her class in 1972. She then attended Princeton University, on a full scholarship. At the time that Sotomayor attended Princeton, the school had about 20 Latino students.

During her time at Princeton, Sotomayor was an activist and took interest in faculty hiring and curriculum. At that time, Princeton did not have a full-time Latino professor, nor any class on Latin American studies. Due, in part, to Sotomayor’s activism, the school would go on to hire Latino faculty members. She convinced historian Peter Winn to create a seminar on Puerto Rican history and politics. She served on various boards and committees during her time at Princeton. She would graduate summa cum laude with an A.B. in history in 1976. Her 178-page senior thesis was on Luis Muñoz Marlin, the first democratically elected governor of Puerto Rico, and on the territory’s struggles for economic and political self-determination. The paper was entitled, "La Historia Ciclica de Puerto Rico: The Impact of the Life of Luis Muñoz Marin on the Political and Economic History of Puerto Rico, 1930–1975".

After graduating from Princeton in 1976, Sotomayor married Kevin Edward Noonan, a man she had dated since high school.

In the fall of 1976, Sotomayor entered Yale Law School on a scholarship. She became editor of the Yale Law Journal and was also managing editor of the student-run Yale Studies in World Public Order publication. Sotomorayor would publish a law review note on the effect of possible Puerto Rican statehood on the island’s mineral and ocean rights. She would become a semi-finalist in the Barristers Union Mock Trial Competition.

Sotomayor began her legal career in 1979 as an assistant district attorney under New York County District Attorney Robert Morgenthau. She worked in the DA’s trial division and handled cases that involved everything from shoplifting to murder. She also worked on cases involving alleged police brutality.

She joined the practice group, Pavia and Harcourt in 1984. Her specialties included intellectual property litigation, international law and arbitration. Her main focus was on tracking down and suing counterfeiters of Fendi goods, and Italian luxury fashion house. At times she would accompany police to Harlem or Chinatown when they seized counterfeit goods. She had a private law practice in 1986. Her law practice was located in her Brooklyn apartment.

In 1987, New York governor Mario Cuomo appointed her to the head of the State of New York Mortgage Agency. She remained in that capacity until 1992. As part of one of the largest urban rebuilding efforts in American history, the agency helped low-income people get home mortgages and to provide insurance coverage for housing and hospices for sufferers of AIDS. During this time she became a partner in the Pavia Harcourt firm in 1988. She would resign from the firm when she became a judge 4 years later.

As far as politics were concerned during this time, Sotomayor was registered as an independent.

from 1980 until 1992, Sotomayor was a member of the board of directors of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund. She was a policy maker and worked with the organization’s lawyers on issues such as New York City hiring practices, police brutality, the death penalty and voting rights. The group successfully blocked a city primary election on the grounds that New York City Council boundaries dimished the power of minority voters.

Sotomayor was nominated by President George H. W. Bush to a seat on the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of New York. The Senate Judiciary Committee hearings were smooth and progressed quickly. A Republican senator blocked her nomination but eventually the matter was dropped and Sotomayor was confirmed by unanimous consent of the United States Senate. She was the youngest judge in the Southern District at that time, and the first Hispanic federal judge in New York State. She became the first Puerto Rican woman to serve as a judge in a United States federal court. She moved from Brooklyn back to the Bronx so that she could live in her district.

According to Silverman v. Major League Baseball Player Relations Committee, Inc., 880 F. Supp. 246 (S.D.N.Y. 1995), on March 30, 1995, Sotomayor issued a preliminary injunction against Major League Baseball, preventing it from unilaterally implementing a new collective bargaining agreement and using replacement players. Her ruling ended the 1994 baseball strike after 232 days, the day before the new season was scheduled to begin. The Second Circuit upheld Sotomayor's decision and denied the owners' request to stay the ruling. Other rulings of note made by Sotomayor included Dow Jones v. Department of Justice (1995), New York Times Co. v. Tasini, and Castle Rock Entertainment, Inc. v. Carol Publishing Group.

On June 25, 1997, Sotomayor was nominated by President Bill Clinton to a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. During her September 1997 hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sotomayor parried strong questioning from some Republican members about mandatory sentencing, gay rights, and her level of respect for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. After a long wait, she was approved by the committee in March 1998, with only two dissensions.

Sotomayor would spend over a decade on the Second Circuit, hearing appeals in more than 3,000 cases and wrote approximately 380 opinions where she was in the majority.

On May 26, 2009, President Barack Obama nominated her for the Supreme Court. This made her on the second jurist to be nominated to three different judicial positions by three different presidents. After the political hearings, Sotomayor was appointed as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. Her judicial career has spanned almost 3 decades; August 12, 1992 – October 7, 1998, Judge of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York; October 7, 1998 – August 6, 2009, Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit; United States Supreme Court, 2009-present.

The above story was compiled from information in various journals, interviews, publications, judicial records and the US Supreme Court Justice website.