More To Sotomayor Than 'Firsts'

Diabetes, Money Issues, Legal Experience Set New Justice Apart From Her Peers

August 07, 2009|By David G. Savage | David G. Savage,Tribune Newspapers

WASHINGTON - - Sonia Sotomayor completed an unlikely and historic journey Thursday, one that began with her birth in a Bronx, N.Y., housing project 55 years ago and culminated in her confirmation as the Supreme Court's 111th justice.

When she is sworn into office Saturday, Sotomayor will take her place as the high court's first Latino and just its third woman. She was approved by a 68-31 Senate vote after three days of debate. Nine Republicans crossed party lines to support her.

But what she brings to the high court goes far beyond her ethnicity or gender.

Sotomayor will be the only justice whose first language was not English. She spoke Spanish at home as a child, and she will join a court that enforces a federal law that calls for equal opportunity in schools for children who do not speak English.

She has had diabetes since childhood, a medical condition classified as a disability under the federal law that forbids discrimination against persons with physical or mental impairments.

Disability-rights advocates have suffered some big defeats in the court in the past decade, and they have high hopes for her. "We're very excited. We don't feel we have had a champion on the current court," said Andrew Imparato, president of the American Association of People with Disabilities.

She was raised in a city housing project where drugs and crime were more common than scholarly success at an Ivy League institution. Sotomayor refers to herself proudly as an "affirmative action baby," having been admitted to Princeton University with less than stellar SAT scores, but who nonetheless graduated with highest honors.

She will "change the conversation on affirmative action" within the court, says University of Maryland law professor Sherrilyn Ifill. The only other minority on the court, Justice Clarence Thomas, is a staunch foe, maintaining that affirmative-action policies taint the accomplishments of all minorities.

"Her story of how hard she worked to graduate first in her class from Princeton makes her really the poster child for the benefits of affirmative action," Ifill said.

Sotomayor is also a divorced woman who has no children, but a close relationship with an extended family.

"She is a modern woman with a nontraditional family," said Sylvia Lazos, a law professor at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. "She is much more reflective of contemporary American society than the other justices like Alito and Roberts."

She was referring to Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., both of whom are married and have two children. The court is expected to soon face a series of cases involving the legal rights of other nontraditional families with gay and lesbian couples.

Even her personal finances look more like contemporary America as compared with her new and wealthier colleagues at the Supreme Court. According to friends, Sotomayor has struggled to pay her mortgage and her credit card bills, and her financial disclosures show she has no substantial savings or stock portfolio.

Before becoming a judge, she served on a New York board that strictly enforced the city's campaign finance laws, but she will be joining a court whose conservative justices are skeptical of limiting the role of money in politics.

And, unlike any other current justice, she has both tried cases as a prosecutor and presided over trials as judge. Friends say those experiences shaped her view of the law and judging, giving her an up-close look at how the criminal justice system works. By contrast, most of the justices have spent their careers as law professors, government lawyers and appellate judges, all at least one step removed from actual trials.

"She is intensely focused on the facts, not the ideology," said Los Angeles lawyer Nancy Gray, who worked with Sotomayor as prosecutor in New York. "In the criminal system, you often see the worst in people, the damage that crime does to victims and their families, and the revolving door of people coming through the system. She is acutely aware of all that."

Until now, most of the debate involving Sotomayor has focused on her ethnicity and gender. The impact of those aspects of her background may be subtle and not obvious in decisions, many lawyers say, but could influence her fellow justices.

After Justice Thurgood Marshall retired, several justices, including Sandra Day O'Connor and Byron White, wrote that the first African-American justice had a powerful influence through the stories he told in their private conferences. As a young lawyer, he traveled throughout the South to represent black defendants who often faced a white prosecutor, a white judge and an all-white jury. If his white colleagues had not thought much about how race could infect the criminal justice system, Marshall made sure they understood.

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