From the Bronx to the Bench: Sonia Sotomayor’s Trailblazing Journey to the Supreme Court

Today’s post was written by Lynn Nashorn, textual processing and accessioning archivist at the National Archives at College Park.

view of cityscape with river in middle
Looking South from the Bronx to Manhattan, May 1973 (NAID 548407)

Born on June 25, 1954 in The Bronx in New York City, Sonia Sotomayor overcame personal and professional adversity to become the first woman of color and Latina member of the Supreme Court of the United States. The child of Puerto Rican-born parents, Sotomayor grew up in a South Bronx tenement and the blue collar Bronxdale Houses housing project.  She was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in 1961 and lost her father two years later. Through watching the television series Perry Mason, she dreamed of becoming a lawyer. As she stated, “I was going to college and I was going to become an attorney, and I knew that when I was ten…That’s no jest”.

b&w photo portrait with her arms crossed
Sonia Sotomayor, age 6 or 7 (Wikimedia Commons)

            After graduating as valedictorian from her high school class, Sotomayor attended Princeton University on a full scholarship and compared entering college to “a visitor landing in an alien country.” Yet slowly, she got involved in student affairs and co-chaired the Acción Puertorriqueña organization, a social and political outlet that worked to give a voice to Puerto Rican students. As an activist, Sotomayor lobbied for Princeton to include Latin American studies classes in its curriculum and hire Latino American professors (the university did not have any Latinx professors in the early 1970s). Through her work with Princeton’s History Department and the university’s administration, by the time Sotomayor graduated summa cum laude in 1976, Princeton offered a seminar on Puerto Rican history and politics and had a few Latinx faculty members.

Sotomayor with long hair and collared shirt
Princeton 1976 yearbook picture of Sonia Sotomayor (Nassau Herald)

            From Princeton she went on to Yale Law School and graduated in 1979. After law school, Sotomayor worked as an assistant district attorney for New York County. While handling heavy caseloads brought on by high crime rates in New York City in the 1980s, Sotomayor often worked 15-hour days, but colleagues regarded her as driven, prepared, and fair. New York County District Attorney (DA) Robert Morgenthau, who Sotomayor worked under, later remembered her as a “fearless and effective prosecutor”, and one of her evaluations called her a “potential superstar”.

id card with picture of Sotomayor in glasses
Assistant District Attorney Credentials for Sotomayor (Academy of Achievements)

            Sonia Sotomayor left the DA’s office in the early 1980s and opened her own independent practice in 1983. The following year, she joined a private commercial litigation practice group as an associate and made partner in 1988. During this time, Sotomayor also worked in several public service roles including acting as a board member of the State of New York Mortgage Agency, the New York City Campaign Finance Board, the Maternity Center Association, and serving on the board of directors of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund. In these roles, she helped build hospices for individuals with AIDS, scrutinized mayoral campaign spending, worked to improve maternity care and New York City’s hiring practices and voting rights.

            In 1991, President George H. W. Bush nominated Sotomayor to a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. Upon her confirmation on August 11, 1992, she became the first Hispanic federal judge in New York State and the first Puerto Rican woman to serve as a judge in a U.S. federal court. As a district court judge, Sotomayor ruled in Silverman v. Major League Baseball (MLB) Player Relations Committee, Inc. that the MLB could not enact a new collective bargaining agreement and use replacement players thereby ending the 1994 baseball strike and ensuring the 1995 season began on time. As a nod to her background, Sotomayor warned lawyers during the preparatory phase of the case, “I hope none of you assumed…that my lack of knowledge of any intimate details of your dispute meant I was not a baseball fan. You can’t grow up in the South Bronx without knowing about baseball”.

Sotomayor in Yankees jersey holding a baseball high and smiling
Sotomayor is escorted onto the field by New York Yankees catcher Jorge Posada to throw out the ceremonial first pitch before the New York Yankees game against the Boston Red Sox at Yankee Stadium on Sept. 26, 2009. (AP)

The same year, she sentenced Joseph Salema, former chief of staff for New Jersey Governor Jim Florio, to two years of probation along with six months in a halfway house and six months of house detention for his part in a kickback scheme relating to a Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority bond deal. Several letters written to Sotomayor in reference to Salema’s character and public service (NAID 40435892) are available through the National Archives catalog and held at the Clinton Presidential Library and Museum.

In June 1997, President Bill Clinton nominated Sotomayor to a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, and she was confirmed to the court on October 2, 1998. During her ten year tenure on the court, Sotomayor ruled on cases involving abortion, First, Second, and Fourth Amendment rights, employment discrimination, business, and civil and property rights. Among these cases, in Clarett v. National Football League (NFL) she upheld the NFL’s eligibility requirements which stated that players had to wait three football seasons after completing high school before being allowed to enter the NFL draft.

Obama and Sotomayor seated in chairs talking
President Barack Obama meets with Judge Sonia Sotomayer in the Oval Office on May 21, 2009. The President nominated Judge Sotomayer to the U.S. Supreme Court on May 26, 2009. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza, NAID 176548508)

On April 30, 2009, Supreme Court Justice David Souter announced his retirement from the court. On May 26, President Barack Obama formally nominated Sonia Sotomayor to fill Souter’s vacancy. Though some Republicans pushed to block her confirmation, many people praised Obama’s selection. Former Chief Judge of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals Jon Newman called Sotomayor “a brilliant lawyer” and “everything one would want in a first-rate judge”. Senator Olympia Snowe (R-ME) marked Sotomayor as a “well-qualified” and “historic” selection for the court. Sotomayor’s former boss New York District Attorney Robert Morgenthau applauded Sotomayor’s “wisdom, intelligence, collegiality, and good character” and said, “It is a credit to the President, and indeed to the United States, that an individual born in humble circumstances… can simply by dint of talent and hard work, … be recognized as the right candidate for a seat on the highest Court in the land.”

SCOTUS Justices, President and VP standing
President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden meet with Supreme Court Justices prior to the investiture ceremony for Justice Sonia Sotomayor, at the Supreme Court in Washington, DC, Sept. 8, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza, NAID 176551376)

The Senate confirmed her nomination on August 6. Chief Justice John Roberts administered the oaths of office and swore Sotomayor in on August 8, 2009. Upon being sworn into office, Justice Sonia Sotomayor became the 111th justice of the Supreme Court, the first Latina to serve on the Supreme Court, and only the third woman on the court (Elena Kagan was sworn in as a justice in 2010, and Amy Coney Barrett became the fifth woman on the court in 2020). Since then, she has written opinions in several significant rulings.

Obama and Sotomayor shake hands
President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden at Supreme Court meeting with Justices prior to Investiture Ceremony for Justice Sotomayor, Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza, NAID 118817965)

In J.D.B. v. North Carolina (2011) concerning the importance of age with regards to police custody and Miranda rights, Sotomayor argued in the majority opinion that “to ignore the very real differences between children and adults — would be to deny children the full scope of the procedural safeguards that Miranda guarantees to adults.” Three years later, in Wheaton College v. Burwell in which the Supreme Court granted the Christian-affiliated college with an exemption from the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) directive on contraception, Sotomayor wrote in the dissenting opinion that the 6-3 ruling threatened “hundreds of Wheaton employees and students – legal entitlement to contraceptive coverage”.

Sotomayor seated and laughing with people standing around her
Supreme Court Justice Nominee Sonia Sotomayor laughs with Deputy White House Counsel Cassadra Butts, left, Counsel to Vice-President Joe Biden Cynthia Hogan, right, and members of the White House Counsel’s Office during her birthday party that was held inside the Eisenhower Executive Office Building Wednesday June 24, 2009. The Counsel’s Office presented her with a framed, signed photograph of her with President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden from the announcement of her appointment on May 22. 2009. (Official White House Photo by Johnny Simon, NAID 193688406)

On January 20, 2021, at the 59th U.S. Presidential Inauguration, Sonia Sotomayor swore in Kamala Harris as the first woman, African American, and Asian American Vice President of the United States. As she did in her youth, Sotomayor continues to visit her relatives in Puerto Rico a couple of times a year and her ethnic heritage continues to play an important role in her identity. As she noted in a 2009 interview, “I am an American, love my country and could achieve its opportunity of succeeding at anything I worked for, [but] I also have a Latina soul and heart, with the magic that carries.”