Hispanic Heritage Month: Sonia Sotomayor

In celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month, Biography profiles Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic and third woman to serve on the Supreme Court.
Image Title1

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 229 years.

Just as impressive is that Sotomayor came 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.

Sotomayor as a child with her parents. 

Sotomayor as a child with her parents. 

Willed by her now-single mother to value higher education with a fervor, in 1972 Sotomayor was accepted into Princeton. Four years later she graduated summa cum laude and was recognized with the Pyne Prize, a distinction given to the most distinguished students. She went on to attend 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. During her time with the DA's office, she worked 15-hour days, handling caseloads involving robberies, assault, child pornography, and murders. She then entered private practice as a partner at Manhattan litigation firm Pavia & Harcourt.

For decades, she had wanted to serve the public by becoming a judge and 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 legal talents and work ethic, Sotomayor would eventually become the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice. Sotomayor would eventually make her way to becoming New York State’s first Hispanic federal judge. 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 a judgeship in a U.S. federal court.

President Obama hosts a reception for Supreme Court Associate Justice Sotomayor at the White House in August 2009. 

President Obama hosts a reception for Supreme Court Associate Justice Sotomayor at the White House in August 2009. 

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. 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.

From the Bio Archives: This article has been updated and was originally published in 2013.