Sotomayor battled bias in D.C.

Judge Sonia Sotomayor, President Obama’s first pick for the Supreme Court, got some real-world experience fighting discrimination before she ever heard a case as a judge.

As a law student at Yale, she turned down a high-profile job with the powerful Washington law firm Shaw, Pittman, Potts & Trowbridge to protest questions during the recruitment process about her Hispanic heritage, according to a report in The Washington Post from 1978. The daughter of Puerto Ricans, Judge Sotomayor will be the first Hispanic to serve on the high court if confirmed.

A student-faculty tribunal found that, during a recruitment dinner, one of the Washington firm’s lawyers improperly asked her whether she had been “culturally deprived” by her heritage.

Mr. Obama introduced Judge Sotomayor as a candidate with the “common touch” and “experience” he is seeking for the nation’s highest court, but did not mention the 1978 incident. Judge Sotomayor has served on the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals since 1998.

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According to the contemporary news account of the tribunal’s findings, a Shaw, Pittman lawyer asked her: ” ‘Do law firms do a disservice by hiring minority students who the firms know do not have the necessary credentials and will then fire in three to four years? Would [you] have been admitted to the law school if [you] were not a Puerto Rican? [Were you] culturally deprived?’ ”

One of the firm’s founding partners apologized to Judge Sotomayor at the time. The firm was bought three years ago and merged into Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP.

“Pillsbury has always been committed to diversity of all kinds, and we are proud of our record in attracting and retaining minority lawyers,” said Pillsbury Chairman James M. Rishwain. “Having attorneys from diverse backgrounds and experiences is fundamental to our business and beneficial to both our clients and us.”

A year after the incident, Judge Sotomayor took a position as an assistant district attorney for New York County.

About the Author
Tom LoBianco

Tom LoBianco

Tom LoBianco has covered energy and environmental policy, including the climate change bill making its way through Congress. From 2007 to 2008, he covered Maryland politics from the Times’s Annapolis bureau. Tom hold’s a master’s degree in political science from Northeastern University and a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Maryland, College Park. He spent two and a ...

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