Hispanic Heritage Month: Sonia Sotomayor

In celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month, Bio.com profiles Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who fulfilled her lifelong dream of serving justice and making a huge impact on the world.

Becoming a judge, in any capacity, was a childhood fascination for Sonia Sotomayor. So, even as a lifelong overachiever, she exceeded her own expectations by becoming only the third woman and first Hispanic justice to be appointed to the Supreme Court. That’s even more impressive when considering the Court has been around for 224 years.

Just as impressive is that Sotomayor originated from very humble means. After moving from Puerto Rico to New York’s South Bronx, her father worked as a manufacturing toolmaker and her mother as a licensed practical nurse. Things only got more dire after Sotomayor’s father died from heart complications when she was just nine. Since he spoke only Spanish, Sotomayor picked up English fluently only after he passed away.

Originally, a young Sotomayor wanted to follow in the fictional footsteps of Nancy Drew by becoming a detective, but a diabetes diagnosis at age seven altered her plans. After watching an episode of court show drama Perry Mason, her new calling was determined: She would be an arbiter of justice.

Willed by her now-single mother to value higher education with a religious fervor, in 1972 Sotomayor was accepted into Princeton. Four years later she graduated summa cum laude and recognized with the Pyne Prize, a distinction given to the most distinguished students. Thereafter, she attended Yale Law School where she presided over the Yale Law Journal as editor.

After receiving her Juris Doctor from Yale, Sotomayor took a position as an assistant district attorney under New York County District Attorney Robert Morgenthau. The stresses of the job―such as going to decrepit neighborhoods to interview trial witnesses, working 15 hour days, and handling caseloads involving robberies, assault, child pornography, and murders―saw her work there for just a few years. Following that, she entered private practice as a partner at Manhattan litigation firm Pavia & Harcourt.

Since she had wanted to become a judge for decades, as well as offer her talents to public service, Sotomayor was thrilled to be recommended for a spot on the New York district court by senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan in 1991. Moynihan, at the time, rightly predicted that because of her myriad attributes and work ethic, Sotomayor would eventually become the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice. Following some political lagging, Sotomayor would eventually make her way to the recommended position, becoming New York State’s first Hispanic federal judge in the process. As a self-proclaimed Nuyorican (i.e. a Puerto Rican from New York), it was also an honor for Sotomayor to be the first Puerto Rican woman to hold judgeship in a U.S. federal court.

After many more years of distinguished service, including time as a Bill Clinton-appointed U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit justice, Sotomayor would prove Daniel Patrick Moynihan right. On May 26, 2009, President Barack Obama nominated her to a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. Though the move received much ire from conservatives, most of the country―54% of it, in fact―were in favor of her nomination. Months later, after being confirmed by a full Senate vote, Sotomayor was sworn in by Chief Justice John Roberts as the first Hispanic Supreme Court appointee.

During her justiceship, she has presided over high-profile cases like Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and Arizona v. United States, in which she has taken a pro-human stance. And earlier this year, she administered the oath to Vice President Joe Biden upon the inauguration of his second term in office. Though far from done on leaving a historic mark on the world, Sotomayor has done what few have, and most importantly, followed her childhood dream all the while.