- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 27, 2009

At an early age, Sonia Sotomayor knew, given her hardscrabble background and status as a minority, that her margin for error in life was slim.

“Kids sometimes are silly, and she was not like that. You could tell she was serious,” said Renee Fiorenza, a high school classmate who graduated with Judge Sotomayor in 1972 from Cardinal Spellman High School in the Bronx, and now teaches at the school.

“She was always determined, had goals, and I think that came from within,” Mrs. Fiorenza said in an interview Tuesday, the day that Judge Sotomayor was announced as President Obama’s nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court.

Judge Sotomayor, the 54-year-old product of a poor Puerto Rican immigrant family, universally is described - by friends, colleagues and top advisers to the president - as a woman on a mission, imbued with a strong sense of purpose.

She wrote in her college yearbook, in 1976, “I am not a champion of lost causes, but of causes not yet won.”

Critics and political opponents will seize on such biographical details to argue that Judge Sotomayor is a judicial activist. To her supporters, including Mr. Obama, Judge Sotomayor’s “extraordinary journey” is simply an asset that will complement her jurisprudence.

“She is a fundamentally real person,” said senior White House adviser David Axelrod.

However her legal career plays out in the weeks and months ahead, Judge Sotomayor’s rise to the threshold of the nation’s highest court is the product of a fierce fight to overcome the odds.

“Achieving success here is no easy accomplishment for Latinos or Latinas,” Judge Sotomayor said in 2002. “It does inspire how I live my life.”

She also spoke during that same speech of “a world that sometimes looks at me with suspicion.”

The particulars of Judge Sotomayor’s story already were familiar to many before Mr. Obama’s announcement Tuesday, given that she has been considered a likely nominee for the Supreme Court for years, going back to 1997, when Republican senators hesitated in confirming her to the U.S. Court of Appeals because of her political and biographical appeal.

Her parents came to the U.S. during World War II, her mother serving in the Women’s Army Corps. She was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes at age 8. A year later, her father died, leaving her family to raise her and her brother alone on a nurse’s salary.

Mr. Obama added lesser-known details of this tapestry when announcing her nomination in the White House East Room, disclosing that Celina Sotomayor “bought the only set of encyclopedias in the neighborhood” while working sometimes two jobs to send her daughter and son, Juan, to Cardinal Spellman.

“I am all I am because of her, and I am only half the woman she is,” Judge Sotomayor said Tuesday of her mother, who sat in the first row of the audience, wiping away tears.

The White House said that after her father died, Judge Sotomayor “turned to books for solace,” especially the Nancy Drew detective stories, which inspired her dreams of a life in the law.

The work ethic that emerged from this upbringing led Judge Sotomayor first to Princeton University on a scholarship, where she received the Pyne Prize, the highest general award given to undergraduates. She went on to earn a law degree from a second Ivy League school, Yale, where she edited the school’s law journal.

On the bench, she has become “a very powerful judge,” said Guido Calabresi, a fellow jurist on New York’s 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, who also taught her when she was a first-year law student at Yale.

“She writes clearly and with force, so that she has on more than one occasion caused me to change my mind,” Judge Calabresi said. “She is a strong questioner. There are some lawyers who don’t like that, but she’s always very polite when she does that.”

The fact that some lawyers are less receptive to questions “coming from a woman,” Judge Calabresi said, has not restrained her.

“She’s certainly not a wilting flower,” said Cesar Perales, president of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, on whose board Judge Sotomayor sat for about 10 years until she was nominated to the federal bench in 1991, advising the group on current and potential litigation.

But Judge Sotomayor, who is divorced with no children of her own, is known for more than just professional intensity.

“She’s obviously very smart; she’s very gracious. There’s a warmth that I’ve found in interacting with her, a likability,” said Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the law school at the University of California at Irvine.

Throughout her career, from her time as an assistant district attorney in New York, to her years in private commercial litigation, and then on the federal bench, Judge Sotomayor has been driven by a desire to create more opportunities for others like her.

“I am an ordinary person who has been blessed with extraordinary opportunities and experiences,” she said Tuesday.

• Tom LoBianco contributed to this report.

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