Sotomayor was born in the Bronx in New York City in 1954. Her father was a laborer who died when she was nine years old, and she was raised by her mother. Her mother was a nurse who worked six days a week to send Sonia and her brother to Catholic school, and bought her children the only set of Encyclopedia Britannica in the neighborhood. At a young age, she was inspired to be a private detective by the Nancy Drew series of books, but later settled on judge after watching an episode of the popular Perry Mason television series. In pursuit of her dream, Sotomayor went on to receive a Bachelor of Arts from Princeton University in 1976, graduating summa cum laude. She received her law degree from Yale in 1979. She worked as an Assistant District Attorney in New York until 1984, when she entered private practice, joining the New York law firm of Pavia & Harcourt.
In 1991, President George H.W. Bush nominated Sotomayor as a judge to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. She was confirmed by unanimous consent in the U.S. Senate in 1992. She was the youngest judge in the Southern District, and the first Puerto Rican woman to serve as a U.S. federal judge. Perhaps her most well-known decision came during her tenure as district court judge, when she enjoined Major League Baseball from unilaterally implementing a new collective bargaining agreement and hiring replacements for the striking ball players, effectively ending the players' strike after 232 days. Silverman v. Major League Baseball Player Relations Committee, Inc., 880 F. Supp. 246 (S.D.N.Y. 1995).
In 1997, President Bill Clinton nominated Sotomayor to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Although the nomination process was not quite as smooth as it had been for Sotomayor's district court nomination, due in part to some Republicans who, presciently, as it turned out, were concerned that she was headed for the U.S. Supreme Court, she was confirmed the following year, in 1998.
During her tenure on the Second Circuit, Sotomayor wrote approximately 380 majority opinions. The New York Times described her opinions as "models of modern judicial craftsmanship, which prizes careful attention to the facts in the record and a methodical application of layers of legal principles." Some of her opinions include:
U.S. v. Napoli, 179 F.3d 1 (2d Cir. 1999) - holding that convictions for fraud and for laundering the proceeds of fraud are to be treated as separate counts under the federal sentencing guidelines U.S. v. Quattrone, No. 04-2432-cr (March 22, 2005) - holding that a judge could not prevent the media from publishing the names of jurors after they were read aloud in court because the order was a form of prior restraint that violated the First Amendment.
Cassidy v. Chertoff, 471 F.3d 67 (2d Cir. 2006) - holding that the government's "special need" in protecting a ferry across Lake Champlain from terrorist activities justified warrantless searches under the Fourth Amendment. Sotomayor has recently received attention for her participation on a panel that produced an unsigned opinion that rejected a challenge by white firefighters in New Haven, Connecticut to the city's decision to throw out the test results for a promotion within the fire department where the test had a disparate impact on minority firefighters. The U.S. Supreme Court recently overturned that decision, holding that the city's failure to certify the results of the test was itself a violation of Title VII because the city did not have a strong basis in evidence to believe that the results would subject the city to disparate-impact liability. Ricci v. DeStefano, 2009 WL 1835138 (June 29, 2009).
As a woman and a Puerto Rican, Justice Sotomayor has a history of breaking through barriers in the legal profession. She once said that while at Yale Law School, she felt like "a visitor in an alien country" and recalls being too intimidated to ask questions her first year. Nevertheless, Sotomayor has grown fully into her judicial role, and she is described by former law clerks and lawyers who have appeared before her as "outspoken" on the bench. Justice Sotomayor is frank that her background is an important part of her identity and her approach to judging. In 2001, she gave a speech in which she acknowledged that the sex and ethnicity of a judge "may and will make a difference in our judging."
Her Honor: A Portrait of Justice Sonia Sotomayor, November 11, 2009, Latina
Sotomayor Speaks Early and Often in Oral Arguments, October 6, 2009, ABA Journal
Do Women Make Better Judges?, October 2, 2009, Slate