- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s open-book life has been a story of overcoming challenges, from an underprivileged upbringing in the Bronx to struggles against perceived discrimination to a mammoth battle against a mischievous cricket outside her Princeton dorm-room window.

Thanks to her prolific writing and speechmaking, all of which she had to submit to the Senate Judiciary Committee as she awaits hearings on her Supreme Court nomination, every detail is there for senators to read, down to her days wearing a bulletproof vest while she was on the clock for the Manhattan district attorney’s office and to her teenage dating strategy — when she and a cousin fended off each other’s parents.

What emerges from the judge’s very personal speaking and writing is a portrait of a woman who grew up in what she calls the “cocoon” of the Puerto Rican enclave of the Bronx, who faced serious self-doubts about whether she was up for the grueling educational path she had chosen and who is consumed with melding her Latina identity with the role assigned her as a high-level federal judge.

“I have spent my years since Princeton — while at law school and in my various professional jobs — not feeling completely a part of any of the worlds I inhabit,” she said in a 2002 speech, contrasting her impoverished upbringing in a South Bronx housing project with her “lovely apartment in a yuppie neighborhood of Manhattan.”

“I have worked in job environments that have been challenging, stimulating and engrossing, but none of them are controlled by Latinos. As accomplished as I have been in my professional settings, I am always looking over my shoulder wondering if I measure up and always concerned that I have to work harder to succeed.”

Even in today’s voyeuristic political world, Judge Sotomayor’s openness and inclination to self-examination may set a new record for Supreme Court picks, and it contrasts starkly with material on past nominees, such as Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. or Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., for whom reporters culled boxes of documents and opinions looking for humanizing details.

“That’s what surprised me was just about how open she was about all these issues,” said Barbara Perry, a professor and Supreme Court scholar at Sweet Briar College, who said that as a Hispanic female, Judge Sotomayor has had a much greater incentive to talk about her personal story.

“She is this ethnic minority and woman — because you’re not the default setting, you’re not the white-male setting — you don’t see Roberts and Alito going out anytime in your life and talking about what it means to be a white male,” Ms. Perry said.

Given that identity, Judge Sotomayor made the perfect guest speaker during Hispanic heritage celebrations, particularly for lawyers or law enforcement groups. Yet she wasn’t always certain of law — she says her first, inauspicious introduction to courts was through the arrest of family members. Still, early on, she says, her love of the courtroom drama in Perry Mason episodes made her want to be a judge.

She hints at her early jobs, including busting counterfeiters in New York’s Chinatown and cruising around the Shea Stadium parking lot on motorcycles chasing intellectual-property pirates’ vans.

Among the host of other personal tidbits: She was one of the first in her extended family to graduate high school, much less go to college; she didn’t like tacos until she met Dolores, her Mexican roommate at Princeton; she got a C on her first college midterm paper and had to relearn writing, in particular to lose some of the practices that came from speaking Spanish. She never raised her hand to be called on in class during her first year of law school at Yale, and only finally in her second-year class on trust and estate law did she finally venture to speak up. Though slight of stature, she was her social group’s best bouncer at Yale, screening out the neighborhood locals who tried to crash parties at a campus pub known as the Gypsy Bar. She didn’t want to fill out the application to become a federal judge, but a managing partner of her law firm insisted, took away her work and assigned her a paralegal and his own secretary to complete the application form.

Playing catch-up

As a child, Judge Sotomayor attended St. Athanasius Church and worked at United Bargains, a clothing store, the summer she turned 15, then at Prospect Hospital during her junior and senior years in high school and summers in her early years at college.

The details may seem trifling, but they paint a picture of someone who is still coming to terms with her identity and what it means for her professionally.

She also gives glimpses into her romantic life, including talking about her husband, from whom she is divorced; her one-time fiance; and that early-years dating strategy when she and her cousin “protected each other from our parents when we first went out dating as teenagers.”

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