From the South Bronx to the Highest Court: Justice Sonia Sotomayor

ImageAny assessment of the historical makeup of the Supreme Court sends a clear message: the only people qualified to ascertain the true nature of American law are old, white men. The nine-member court only admitted a woman (Sandra Day O’Connor) to its ranks in 1981, well behind the tide of the wave of feminism that had been sweeping the nation since the 1960’s. Sure, the Court is meant to be isolated, austere, and unswayable, but accepting diversity isn’t a trend and shouldn’t be treated as such. It wasn’t until the nineties that the Court saw two women serving concurrently, with the appointment of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. But then O’Connor retired and we were back to one—that is, until Sonia Sotomayor came along.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor was nominated by President Obama in 2009, and ultimately was appointed as the first Hispanic and only the third woman on the Supreme Court. Described by virtually all of her classmates  as exceptionally bright, Sotomayor was Valedictorian of her high school, a Pynes Award winner at our own PrincetonUniversity, and ultimately attended Yale Law.

Sonia Sotomayor was raised in a single-parent home in a South Bronx public housing project. Her parents met after her mother returned from the Women’s Army Corps in World War II, and her father died when Sonia was nine. The strongest figure in Sonia’s life was her mother, followed only by Nancy Drew, the crime fighting girl who starred in Sonia’s favorite book series. These women—real and fictional—were super important in forming her identity both as Latina and female, and she breached both the gender and ethnicity barriers in every phase of her career. (Career, by the way, is something she talks to Abby about on Sesame Street)

Prior to ascending to the bench, Sotomayor was a consistent advocate for the underprivileged and underrepresented while she worked in the Manhattan District Attorney’s office and served on the New York State Mortgage Agency. In 1992, she was nominated to the Federal District Court by Governor Cuomo and President Bush. Six years later, she was nominated by President Clinton to sit on the Federal Court of Appeals, Second Circuit. During this phase of her career, Sotomayor developed a reputation as a tough judge and boss, but one who is also well integrated in the Bronx community.

When President Obama had to replace Justice Souter on the Supreme Court, he sought justices who not only were incredibly intelligent and have a strong understanding of the law, but also those with certain experiences— he considers Sotomayor’s identity as Latina and female as assets to her on the bench. Sonia Sotomayor celebrates her identity and is a radical departure from the old, white men wearing powdered wigs that we often think of when we think of the Supreme Court. Sonia Sotomayor is a trailblazer in more ways than one, and we thank her today.

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