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Larry Neumeister, Associated Press, Published May 27 2009

New York judge’s rise began in the projects

NEW YORK – Sonia Sotomayor’s ascent to the nation’s highest court began in a Bronx housing project, fed by Nancy Drew, inspired by Perry Mason and encouraged by her hard-working immigrant mother.

Her mother worked two jobs after coming to New York from Puerto Rico, including as a nurse at a methadone clinic after her husband died when Sotomayor was 9. She saved up and bought Sotomayor the only encyclopedia set in the neighborhood.

She got her first taste of the law as she buried herself in Nancy Drew books, but it was an episode of “Perry Mason” that provided the defining moment in Sotomayor’s childhood.

Watching the camera settle on the judge at the end of an episode, she immediately realized “he was the most important player in that room,” Sotomayor said in a 1998 interview with The Associated Press.

President Barack Obama built on her rags-to-riches story Tuesday as he nominated her to the Supreme Court, following a distinguished legal career in which she served as a prosecutor, corporate litigator, trial judge and, most recently, member of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York.

Ellen Chapnick, the dean for the Social Justice Program at Columbia Law School, said one of Sotomayor’s former students at the university “called me today in tears and said today is a wonderful, wonderful day.”

She said Sotomayor’s touch with common people is demonstrated whenever she walks through the courthouse, connecting with the guards in the lobby or a clerical worker from another chamber with the same interest as with lawyers and judges.

Sotomayor knows how life struggles can interrupt dreams.

By the time she was 8 years old, Sotomayor had begun insulin injections for juvenile diabetes. After her father died, her mother sometimes worked two jobs, but she always kept a pot of rice and beans on the stove.

The Manhattan-born Sotomayor’s humble upbringing has shaped her personality – vibrant and colorful, and so different from the Bronx projects where she grew up in a home with a drab yellow kitchen. She is a food-loving baseball buff as likely to eat a hot dog at a street corner stand as to settle in for a fancy meal at a swanky restaurant.

Her work and everything else in her life are sure to face close scrutiny in the months ahead in a process all too familiar. Her nomination to the appeals court was delayed 15 months, reportedly because of concerns by Republicans that she might someday be considered for the Supreme Court.

“I don’t think anybody looked at me as a woman or as a Hispanic and said, ‘We’re not going to appoint her because of those characteristics.’ Clearly that’s not what occurred,” she recalled in the 1998 interview.

“But I do believe there are gender and ethnic stereotypes that propel people to assumptions about what they expected me to be,” she continued. “I obviously felt that any balanced view of my work would not support some of the allegations being made.”

The 54-year-old Sotomayor is a die-hard baseball fan – she grew up near Yankee Stadium and loves the Yankees – and it was baseball that provided one of the most important moments of her career: the decision as a U.S. District Court judge to issue an injunction against team owners on March 31, 1995, ending a 7½-month strike that had wiped out the World Series for the first time in 90 years.

Acknowledging the pivotal nature of her ruling, Sotomayor described how it is “when you see an outfielder backpedaling and jumping up to the wall and time stops for an instant as he jumps up and you finally figure out whether it’s a home run, a double or a single off the wall or an out.”

Then she scolded the owners for unfair labor practices and urged lawyers for both sides to salvage the 1995 season, reach a new labor agreement and change their attitudes.

It was classic Sotomayor. She embraces the dramatic moment as well as any of the roughly 80 judges in the lower Manhattan courthouse that has been her home since her appointment to the bench in 1992 by President George H.W. Bush.

As a district judge, she advanced First Amendment religious claims by tossing out a state prison rule banning members of a religious sect from wearing colored beads to ward off evil spirits, and by rejecting a suburban law preventing the display of a 9-foot-high menorah in a park.

In 1995, she released the suicide note of former White House aide Vincent Foster, acting on litigation brought by the Wall Street Journal under the Freedom of Information Act.

Sotomayor, who has a brother who became a doctor, presided over a civil trial in 1996 in which the family of a lawyer who died from AIDS sued the makers of the movie “Philadelphia,” contending that Hollywood stole their story.

The case was settled, but not before the movie with its dramatic courtroom showdowns was played for the jury in its entirety, prompting Sotomayor to caution: “I don’t expect melodrama here. I don’t want anybody aspiring to what they see on the screen.”

Sotomayor graduated summa cum laude from Princeton, then became an editor of the Yale Law Journal at Yale Law School. She joined the Manhattan district attorney’s office and the board of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund.

“She is a brilliant person whose intellect is only overshadowed by her humility, which stems from her being an ordinary person. She’s an ordinary American,” said Carlos Ortiz, the chairman of the Supreme Court Committee in the Hispanic National Bar Association.

“I believe that not only Hispanics but all Americans and people around the world will after this day be more proud and respectful of the United States of America than they have ever been. That’s how significant this is.”

Sotomayor, who is divorced and has no children, is less affluent than many of the typical Supreme Court prospects. Though drawing a six-figure income, she lives in expensive Manhattan.

Sotomayor earned $179,500 as a federal appellate judge in New York last year, plus $14,780 teaching at New York University’s law school and $10,000 as a lecturer at Columbia University’s law school, according to her most recent financial disclosure report.

Sotomayor owns a condominium in trendy Greenwich Village. She has had the property since at least 1998, and took out a $350,000 mortgage from JPMorgan Chase Bank last fall, city records show. Sotomayor refinanced and used proceeds for renovations, her office said.

Other units in the building have sold for $900,000 to $1.5 million over the past five years, city records show.

At a recent program honoring the creator of a documentary showing children who have thrived even in threatening environments, Sotomayor, her round face beaming, seemed to be enjoying the attention she was receiving as her nomination to the Supreme Court seemed likely.

In brief remarks, Sotomayor described the documentary as fabulous.

“We should applaud more frequently those who transform a lost life,” Sotomayor said.

John Siffert, a New York lawyer who has been a friend and teaching partner of Sotomayor over the past 18 years, said she continues to teach inner-city children, in one case bringing a program to the courthouse that lets children prosecute Goldilocks from “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.”

“She can transcend all ages,” he said. “She is the genuine article. As a result, it reaches everyone. People just get her. For someone who’s this smart, intellectual-disciplined and hard-working, she still gets it.”

Jon O. Newman, a senior judge on the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and a former chief judge, said the appointment was the culmination of “the American dream of sheer talent triumphing and being rewarded.”

He added: “She’s overcome adversity growing up and made herself an enormous success based on talent and strength of character. And that’s the American dream.”


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