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A compelling life story of upward achievement

Twice confirmed by the Senate, she'll see her record strictly examined.

Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor speaks during her announcement yesterday in the East Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor speaks during her announcement yesterday in the East Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)Read more

WASHINGTON - Judge Sonia Sotomayor has an up-by-the-bootstraps background, an elite education, and a mixed reputation among lawyers who appear before her.

The New York native, 54, a graduate of Princeton University and Yale Law School, is considered brilliant by some and combative by others. Her decisions over nearly 17 years as a federal judge generally define her as an unabashed liberal.

"President Obama said he wanted a justice with 'towering intellect' and a 'common touch,' and he found both in Judge Sotomayor," declared Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women.

Born to Puerto Rican parents who moved to New York during World War II, Sotomayor was raised largely by her mother, a nurse, in a Bronx housing project after her father died when she was 9. She attended Catholic grade and high schools, graduating as valedictorian from both, and earned her undergraduate degree summa cum laude.

Her life story is a compelling one of upward achievement, even as her legal rulings and occasional rhetoric will subject her to strict scrutiny from conservatives.

Avid baseball fans may recall Sotomayor - a die-hard Yankees follower - from 1995, when she blocked major-league team owners from using replacement players and thereby helped end a 232-day strike.

The Supreme Court itself is reviewing a ruling in a reverse-discrimination case by Sotomayor and her colleagues on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. They upheld a decision by New Haven, Conn., to throw out a firefighters promotion exam after the results showed that no African Americans qualified for advancement.

The case, Ricci v. DeStefano, is likely to loom large in her confirmation hearing, in part because of the internal court strife that has accompanied it. A fellow Second Circuit judge, Jose Cabranes, criticized as sloppy, speedy, and unclear the manner in which Sotomayor and other judges quickly dismissed the arguments of the white firefighter plaintiffs.

The high court's conservative majority previously overturned two appellate decisions that Sotomayor wrote.

Sotomayor has cleared Senate hurdles twice before, as a nominee to the District Court in 1992 and the Second Circuit in 1998. A former Manhattan prosecutor, she secured her first judicial nomination through a Republican president, George H.W. Bush.

By the time President Bill Clinton promoted Sotomayor to the appeals court, however, she was drawing fire from the right. Her 67-29 confirmation vote came only after Republicans imposed a lengthy procedural delay.

Sotomayor "was being held up on the Republican side of the aisle because of speculation that she might one day be considered . . . for nomination to the United States Supreme Court," Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D., Vt.) said on the Senate floor at the time. He is now chairman of the Judiciary Committee.

Since Sotomayor joined the Second Circuit, a study by Akin Gump lawyers found, she has authored more than 150 opinions on issues ranging from free speech to race, sex and age discrimination.

As with every other federal judge, the attorneys who appear before Sotomayor have evaluated her regularly. Compiled in the well-respected Almanac of the Federal Judiciary, Sotomayor's evaluations run a wide gamut.

Many are positive. "She is extremely hardworking and always prepared," one attorney wrote. Another called her "a very good writer," while a third said she was "frighteningly smart [and] intellectually tough."

But Sotomayor also has her share of detractors. "She is temperamental and excitable; she seems angry," one attorney wrote. Another called her "overly aggressive, not very judicial," and a third said she was "nasty to lawyers."

Lauren Goldman, an appellate practice partner with the firm Mayer Brown, said Sotomayor impressed her when Goldman argued a business case before the Second Circuit.

"She was very prepared, and she has researched the case," Goldman said yesterday. "She is a very active questioner, and she wants to get to the bottom of things."

Sotomayor's work as a prosecutor from 1979 to 1984, under legendary District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, typically involved what she called in one Senate questionnaire "street crimes" as well as "child pornography, police misconduct and fraud."

While Sotomayor was in private practice with the firm Pavia & Harcourt from 1984 to 1992, she represented foreign as well as domestic clients.

Like many, if not most, other appellate judges, Sotomayor has been second-guessed by the Supreme Court. In 2000, she sided with former federal inmate John E. Malesko. Malesko was in his late 50s and serving a sentence for securities fraud when he had a heart attack after being ordered to climb five flights of stairs back to his cell quickly. Sotomayor agreed Malesko should be allowed to sue the private corporation that ran the facility.

"An employer facing exposure to such liability would be motivated to prevent unlawful acts by its employees," Sotomayor reasoned.

By 5-4, the Supreme Court disagreed. Then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist declared that Sotomayor's reasoning would lead to a "marked extension" of the ability to sue government contractors.

Sotomayor, who has been single since a marriage of several years ended in divorce in 1983, takes insulin daily for Type 1 diabetes, having been diagnosed at age 8, but has described her health on confirmation questionnaires as good.

She was joined at yesterday's announcement by her brother, Juan, a doctor, and his family, and by their mother, Celina, whom she credited as an "extraordinary person who is my life aspiration."

"Never in my wildest childhood imaginings," Sotomayor said, ". . . did I ever dream that I would live this moment."

Sonia Sotomayor

Age: 54; born June 25, 1954, in New York City.

Experience: Judge, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, 1998 to date; judge, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, 1992-98; private law practice, New York City, 1984-92; assistant district attorney, Manhattan, 1979-84.

Education: B.A., Princeton University, 1976; J.D., Yale Law School, 1979.

Family: Divorced;

no children.