Woman of the Week: Sonia Sotomayor
“There are uses to adversity, and they don’t reveal themselves until tested. Whether it’s serious illness, financial hardship, or the simple constraint of parents who speak limited English, difficulty can tap unexpected strength.”
Sonia Maria Sotomayor was born on June 25, 1954, in the New York borough of The Bronx. Both of her parents, Juan and Celina Sotomayor, were native Puerto Ricans that came to the continental United States during the Second World War. When Sonia was nine years old her father died of heart problems at the age of 42, leaving her to be primarily raised by her mother and grandmother. Following her father’s death, Sonia became fluent in English. She gained inspiration from the Nancy Drew book series, and wanted to become a detective too. This career path was discouraged by doctors though, because at the age of seven Sonia was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. With an understanding that she could not be a detective like Nancy, Sonia decided she wanted to pursue a legal career as a judge.
In 1976, Sonia Sotomayor took her first step to reaching that dream by graduating Summa Cum Laude from Princeton University. She first described her experience at Princeton as, “a visitor landing in an alien country,” but she eventually found her stride at the University after realizing that she just had to work a little harder than other students. Just after her graduation, Sotomayor married her longtime boyfriend, Kevin Edward Noonan, and took the name Sonia Sotomayor de Noona. In 1979, Sotomayor received her J.D. (Doctor of Jurisprudence) from Yale Law School, and in the following year she was admitted to the New York Bar.
The first four and a half years after receiving her law degree Sotomayor worked as an Assistant District Attorney in New York. After those years she began her time in private practice, where she had an active presence on many boards of directors. Some of these boards include: The Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, the State of New York Mortgage Agency, and the New York Campaign Finance Board. In 1991, her work caught the attention of President George H.W. Bush, who nominated Sotomayor to the Southern District Court of New York. The nomination process continued for Sotomayor, as in the 1997, President Bill Clinton nominated her to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Her confirmation process was held up for a period of time by the Republican Senate, but she was eventually confirmed in 1998. During her time as a judge for the Second Circuit, Sotomayor heard more than 3,000 cases and wrote approximately 380 opinions. During this time she also taught at both New York University School of Law and Columbia Law School.
Sonia Sotomayor’s life changed permanently in May of 2009, as President Barack Obama nominated her to the Supreme Court following the retirement of Justice David Souter. In the Senate it takes a majority of 51 votes to confirm a Justice to the Supreme Court, and in August of 2009 Sotomayor was confirmed by a vote of 68-31. Sonia Sotomayor has been granted a number of distinctions with her confirmation. She is the first justice of Hispanic heritage, the first Latina, the third female justice, and the 12th Roman Catholic to join the court. Her time on the Supreme Court has been marked by concerns for the rights of defendants, calls for criminal justice reform, and passionate dissents regarding issues of race, gender, and ethnic identity.
By no means did Sonia Sotomayor have a childhood that set her up for greatness, but she did not let that define her. Instead she rose to every challenge she met, and continued working toward her dream. She was not deterred by the idea of hard work, instead it only added to her determination. We can all stand to learn from this Supreme Court justice, because she showed us just how strong we can be. There is no bigger barrier to our success beyond our own self-doubt, and once we overcome that obstacle everything else is a matter of ease.