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Judge Sonia Sotomator


Sonia Sotomayor (pronounced /ˈsoʊnjɑː soʊtoʊmɑjɔr/) (born June 25, 1954) is a federal judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. On May 26, 2009, President Barack Obama nominated Judge Sotomayor for appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court to replace retiring Justice David Souter.

Sotomayor is of Puerto Rican descent, and was born in The Bronx. Her father died when she was nine, and she was raised by her mother. Sotomayor graduated with an A.B., summa cum laude, from Princeton in 1976, and received her J.D. from Yale Law School in 1979, where she was an editor at the Yale Law Journal. She worked as an Assistant District Attorney in New York for a time before entering private practice in 1984. Sotomayor was nominated to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York by President George H. W. Bush in 1991 and confirmed in 1992.

Sotomayor has ruled on several high profile cases. In 1995, she issued the preliminary injunction against Major League Baseball which ended the 1994 Baseball Strike. Sotomayor made a ruling allowing the Wall Street Journal to publish Vince Foster's suicide note. In 1997, she was nominated by Bill Clinton to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. After more than a year, she was confirmed and joined the court in 1998. Sotomayor was an Adjunct Professor at New York University School of Law from 1998 to 2007 and has been a lecturer-in-law at Columbia Law School since 1999.

Prior to her selection by Obama, Sotomayor was considered a strong potential Supreme Court candidate. In 2005, Senate Democrats suggested Sotomayor as a nominee to George W. Bush, who eventually selected Samuel A. Alito, Jr. There was speculation that Sotomayor could be an Obama Supreme Court nominee prior to Justice Souter's retirement announcement. This speculation intensified after Souter's announcement and when it was reported that she was on Obama's shortlist. On May 26, 2009, Obama nominated Sotomayor to the court. If confirmed, she would be the court's first Hispanic Justice. She would be the third woman to serve on the court; the first two were now-retired Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and current Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Early life and education

Sotomayor was born in the Bronx, a borough of New York City. Her father, Juan Sotomayor, a tool-and-die worker with a third-grade education, did not speak English. He was from the Santurce area of San Juan. Her mother, Celina Sotomayor, a nurse, was from the neighborhood of Santa Rosa in Lajas, a still mostly rural area on Puerto Rico's southwest coast. They left Puerto Rico, met, and married during World War II after Celina served in the Women's Army Corps. Sonia's younger brother, Juan Sotomayor, is a doctor in Syracuse, New York.

Sonia was raised a Catholic and grew up among other Puerto Ricans who settled in the East Bronx. During the 1960s the family moved to the Bronxdale Houses housing project in Soundview, which has at times been considered part of both the East Bronx and South Bronx. At the end of the decade, they moved to Co-op City in the Northeast Bronx. Sonia was diagnosed with Type I diabetes at age eight. Sonia's father died at age 42, in part from heart complications, when she was nine years old. After this was when Sonia first became fluent in English. She was inspired to go into a legal career and become a judge by watching the Perry Mason television series.

Sotomayor's mother put great stress on the value of education, and bought the Encyclopædia Britannica for her children, an unusual sight in the housing projects. Sotomayor has credited her mother as being her "life inspiration". Sotomayor commuted to the parochial Cardinal Spellman High School in the Bronx, where she was on the forensics team and was elected to the student government.[ She graduated as valedictorian in 1972.

When she entered Princeton University, there were few women students and fewer Latinos. She later described the experience as like “a visitor landing in an alien country.” She was too intimidated to ask questions for her first year there, but put in long hours in the library and gained skill and confidence. She became a non-radical student activist, being co-chair of the Acción Puertorriqueña organization, which looked for more opportunities for Puerto Rican students. The organization filed a formal letter of complaint with the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, saying the school discriminated in its hiring and admission practices, and she wrote opinion pieces for The Daily Princetonian along the same theme. She also volunteered with Latino patients in a Trenton psychiatric hospital. A history major, she wrote her senior thesis on Luis Muñoz Marín, the first democratically elected Governor of Puerto Rico, and the island's struggles for economic and political self-determination. She won the Pyne Prize, the top award for undergraduates, which reflected both strong grades and extracurricular activities. She was also elected to Phi Beta Kappa.[She earned her B.A. from Princeton, graduating summa cum laude in 1976.

On August 14, 1976, just after graduating from Princeton, Sotomayor married Kevin Edward Noonan, whom she had dated since high school. He became a biologist and a patent lawyer. (She and Noonan divorced in 1983; they did not have children.)

Sotomayor entered Yale Law School in fall 1976, where she became an editor of the Yale Law Journal. She published a law review note on the effect of possible Puerto Rican statehood on the island's mineral and ocean rights.[ In her third year, she filed a formal complaint against a Washington, D.C. law firm for asking discriminatory questions during recruiting; the firm apologized. She obtained her J.D. from Yale Law School in 1979.

Early legal career

On the recommendation of Yale professor and future judge José A. Cabranes, Sotomayor was hired out of law school as an Assistant District Attorney under New York County District Attorney Robert Morgenthau starting in 1979. There she prosecuted everything from shoplifting and prostitution to robberies, assaults, murders, and police brutality. She felt the lower-level crimes were largely products of socioeconomic environment and poverty, but had a different attitude about serious felonies: "No matter how liberal I am, I’m still outraged by crimes of violence. Regardless of whether I can sympathize with the causes that lead these individuals to do these crimes, the effects are outrageous."She was especially saddened by crimes committed by Hispanics against other Hispanics. In general, she showed a passion for bringing law and order to the streets of New York, and had a special zeal in pursuing child pornography cases, unusual for the time.

In 1984, she entered private practice, making partner at the boutique commercial litigation firm of Pavia & Harcourt, where she specialized in intellectual property litigation. Her clients were mostly international corporations doing business in the United States; much of her time was spent tracking down and suing counterfeiters of Fendi goods. In some cases she went to warehouses to have illegitimate merchandise seized, and in one instance in Chinatown pursued a fleeing culprit while riding on a motorcycle.

In 1987, Governor of New York Mario Cuomo appointed Sotomayor to the board of the State of New York Mortgage Agency. The agency helped low-income people get home mortgages and to provide insurance coverage for housing and AIDS hospices, and she was vocal in supporting the right to affordable housing and in being skeptical about the effects of gentrification. Sotomayor was appointed in 1988 as one of the founding members of the New York City Campaign Finance Board, where she served for four years. She was a member and top policy maker on the Board of Directors of the the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund for 12 years. She was was part of the foundation then known as the Maternity Center Association (now called Childbirth Connection).

Federal district judge

Sotomayor had wanted to become a judge since elementary school, and was being recommended for a spot by New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Of the drop in salary from private practice, she said: "I've never wanted to get adjusted to my income because I knew I wanted to go back to public service. And in comparison to what my mother earns and how I was raised, it's not modest at all."

Sotomayor was nominated on November 27, 1991, by President George H. W. Bush to a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York vacated by John M. Walker, Jr. She became the youngest judge in the Southern District and the first Hispanic federal judge anywhere in New York State. She was also one of only 7 women among the district's 58 judges. Senate Judiciary Committee hearings went smoothly for her in June 1992, with her pro bono activities winning praise from Senator Ted Kennedy. Sotomayor was confirmed by the United States Senate on August 11, 1992, and received her commission the next day. She moved from Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn back to the Bronx in order to live within her district.

Confirmation as Court of Appeals Judge

On June 25, 1997, she was nominated by President Bill Clinton to the seat she now holds, which was vacated by J. Daniel Mahoney. Her nomination was approved overwhelmingly by the Senate Judiciary Committee, but became "embroiled in the sometimes tortured judicial politics of the Senate," as some Republicans said they did not want to consider the nomination because elevating Sotomayor to the Appeals Court would enhance her prospects of being appointed to the Supreme Court.An anonymous senator put a secret hold on her nomination, blocking it for over a year. Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy called the length of the hold "disturbing," "petty," and "shameful," also noting that at that time, "[o]f the 10 judicial nominees whose nominations have been pending the longest before the Senate, eight are women and racial or ethnic minority candidates."

In 1998, several Hispanic organizations organized a petition drive in New York State, generating hundreds of signatures from New Yorkers to try to convince New York Republican Senator Al D'Amato to push the Senate leadership to bring Sotomayor's nomination to a vote. Her nomination had been pending for over a year when Majority Leader Trent Lott scheduled the vote. Many Republicans, including then-Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch and six other Republicans who are still in the Senate today, voted for Sotomayor's confirmation to the Second Circuit. With solid Democratic support, and support from 25 Republican Senators, Sotomayor was confirmed on October 2, 1998, in a 67-29 vote, and she received her commission on October 7.

Awards and honors

Sotomayor has received honorary degrees from Lehman College, Princeton University, Brooklyn Law School, Pace University School of Law, Hofstra University, and Northeastern University. She was elected a member of the American Philosophical Society in 2002.

Other activities

Sotomayor was an Adjunct Professor at New York University School of Law from 1998 to 2007 and has been a lecturer-in-law at Columbia Law School since 1999.She is a member of the Board of Trustees of Princeton University and a longtime fan of the New York Yankees.

Nomination to the United States Supreme Court

Prior to her selection as President Barack Obama's nominee, Sotomayor had been regarded by the Journal of the American Bar Association as a potential Supreme Court nominee by several presidents, both Republican and Democratic. Although some journalists asserted she could enjoy bipartisan support,  in 1998 a majority of Republican Senators voted against her confirmation to the second circuit. In July 2005, a number of Senate Democrats suggested Sotomayor, among others, to President George W. Bush as a nominee acceptable to them to fill the seat of retiring Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. The seat was eventually filled by Judge Samuel A. Alito, Jr. of the Third Circuit.[citation needed]

Since Obama's election, there had been speculation that Sotomayor could be a leading candidate for the Supreme Court seat of Justice David Souter, or for any opening on the Court during Obama's term. On April 9, 2009, New York Senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand wrote a joint letter to Obama urging him to appoint Sotomayor, or alternatively Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, to the Supreme Court if a vacancy should arise on the Court during his term.On April 30, 2009 David Souter's retirement plans were leaked to the media, and Sotomayor received early attention as a possible nominee for the seat to be vacated in June 2009. On May 13, 2009, the Associated Press reported that Obama was considering Sotomayor, among others, for possible appointment to the United States Supreme Court.On May 26, 2009, Obama nominated Sotomayor to the court. If confirmed, this would make her the Supreme Court's first Latina justice. She would be the third woman to serve on the court; the first two were now-retired Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and current Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She would be the twelfth Roman Catholic[citation needed], with her appointment giving the Court a record six Catholic Justices.

Previous rulings

She is considered a political centrist by the American Bar Association Journal and other sources and organizations.Several lawyers, legal experts, and news organizations also identify her as someone who has liberal inclinations.

1994 baseball strike

On March 30, 1995, as a district judge, Sotomayor issued the preliminary injunction against Major League Baseball, preventing MLB 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.


In New York Times Co. v. Tasini, freelance journalists sued the New York Times Company for copyright infringement for the New York Times' inclusion in an electronic archival database (LexisNexis) the work of freelancers it had published. Sotomayor (who was then a District Judge) ruled that the publisher had the right to license the freelancer's work. This decision was reversed on appeal, and the Supreme Court upheld the reversal; two dissenters (John Paul Stevens and Stephen Breyer) took Sotomayor's position.

In Castle Rock Entertainment, Inc. v. Carol Publishing Group, Sotomayor ruled as a district judge that a book of trivia from the television program Seinfeld infringed on the copyright of the show's producer and did not constitute legal fair use. The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit upheld Sotomayor's ruling.


In the 2002 decision Center for Reproductive Law and Policy v. Bush, Sotomayor upheld the Bush administration's implementation of the Mexico City Policy, which states that "the United States will no longer contribute to separate nongovernmental organizations which perform or actively promote abortion as a method of family planning in other nations." Sotomayor held that the policy did not constitute a violation of equal protection, as "the government is free to favor the anti-abortion position over the pro-choice position, and can do so with public funds."

First Amendment rights

In Pappas v. Giuliani, Sotomayor dissented from her colleagues’ ruling that the NYPD could terminate an employee from his desk job who sent racist materials through the mail. Sotomayor argued that the First Amendment protected speech by the employee “away from the office, on [his] own time,” even if that speech was “offensive, hateful, and insulting," and that therefore the employee's First Amendment claim should have gone to trial rather than being dismissed on summary judgment.

In Dow Jones v. Department of Justice, Sotomayor sided with the Wall Street Journal in its efforts to obtain and publish a photocopy of the suicide note of former White House Counsel Vince Foster. Sotomayor ruled that the public had "a substantial interest" in viewing the note and enjoined the Justice Department from blocking its release.

Sotomayor also rejected an appeal of Doninger v. Niehoff, where a teenager at Lewis S. Mills High School was barred from running for school government after she called the superintendent and other school officials "douche bags" on her blog while off-campus. 

Second Amendment rights

Sotomayor was part of the three-judge Second Circuit panel that affirmed the district court's ruling in Maloney v. Cuomo. Maloney was arrested for possession of nunchakus, which are illegal in New York; Maloney argued that this law violated his Second Amendment right to bear arms. The Second Circuit's per curiam opinion noted that the Supreme Court has not, so far, ever held that the Second Amendment is binding against state governments. On the contrary, in Presser v. Illinois, a Supreme Court case from 1886, the Supreme Court held that the Second Amendment "is a limitation only upon the power of Congress and the national government, and not upon that of the state." With respect to the Presser v. Illinois precedent, the panel stated that the recent Supreme Court case of District of Columbia v. Heller (which struck down the district's gun ban as unconstitutional) "does not invalidate this longstanding principle." Thus, the Second Circuit panel upheld the lower court's decision dismissing Maloney's complaint.

Fourth Amendment rights

In N.G. ex rel. S.G. v. Connecticut, Sotomayor dissented from her colleagues’ decision to uphold a series of strip searches of “troubled adolescent girls” in juvenile detention centers. While Sotomayor agreed that some of the strip searches at issue in the case were lawful, she would have held that due to the “the severely intrusive nature of strip searches,” they should not be allowed “in the absence of individualized suspicion, of adolescents who have never been charged with a crime.” She argued that an "individualized suspicion" rule was more consistent with Second Circuit precedent than the majority's rule.

In Leventhal v. Knapek, Sotomayor rejected a Fourth Amendment challenge by a Department of Transportation employee whose employer searched his office computer. She held that “[e]ven though [the employee] had some expectation of privacy in the contents of his office computer, the investigatory searches by the DOT did not violate his Fourth Amendment rights” because here “there were reasonable grounds for suspecting” the search would reveal evidence of “work-related misconduct.”

Employment discrimination

Sotomayor was a member of a Second Circuit panel in a high-profile case that upheld without significant comment a lower court decision backing the right of the City of New Haven to throw out its promotional test for firefighters and start over with a new test, because the City believed the test had a "disparate impact" on minority firefighters and it might therefore be subject to a lawsuit from minority firefighters under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 if it certified the test results. (No black firefighters qualified for promotion under the test, whereas some had qualified under tests used in previous years.) Several white firefighters who had passed the test, including the lead plaintiff who has dyslexia and had put much extra effort into studying, sued the City of New Haven, claiming that their rights were violated because the test was thrown out. The case was recently heard by the U.S. Supreme Court as Ricci v. DeStefano, and a ruling has not yet been issued.


In Clarett v. National Football League Sotomayor upheld the NFL's eligibility rules requiring players to wait three full seasons after high school graduation before entering the NFL draft. Maurice Clarett challenged these rules, which were part of the collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and its players, on antitrust grounds. Sotomayor held that Clarett's claim would upset the established "federal labor law favoring and governing the collective bargaining process." She wrote: "We follow the Supreme Court's lead in declining to 'fashion an antitrust exemption [so as to give] additional advantages to professional football players . . . that transport workers, coal miners, or meat packers would not enjoy.'"

Civil rights

In Correctional Services Corp. v. Malesko, Sotomayor, writing for the court, supported the right of an individual to sue a private corporation working on behalf of the federal government for alleged violations of that individual's constitutional rights. Reversing a lower court decision, Sotomayor found that an existing Supreme Court doctrine, known as "Bivens" — which allows suits against individuals working for the federal government for constitutional rights violations — could be applied to the case of a former prisoner seeking to sue the private company operating the federal halfway house facility in which he resided. The Supreme Court reversed Sotomayor's ruling in a 5-4 decision, saying that the Bivens doctrine could not be expanded to cover private entities working on behalf of the federal government. Justices Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer dissented, siding with Sotomayor's original ruling.

Property rights

In Krimstock v. Kelly, Sotomayor wrote an opinion halting New York City's practice of seizing the motor vehicles of drivers accused of driving while intoxicated and some other crimes and holding those vehicles for "months or even years" during criminal proceedings. Noting the importance of cars to many individuals' livelihoods or daily activities, she held that it violated individuals' due process rights to hold the vehicles without permitting the owners to challenge the City's continued possession of their property.

In Brody v. Village of Port Chester, a takings case, Sotomayor wrote an opinion remanding the case to the district court for further proceedings on whether Brody had adequate notice of the Village's condemnation proceedings against his property. (A related proceeding in the lower court was called Didden v. Village of Port Chester. The case has drawn attention from libertarian commentators.

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