A blast from the past:
September 25, 1992
A Breakthrough Judge: What She Always Wanted
By JAN HOFFMAN
The views from Pavia & Harcourt's 12th-floor offices in midtown Manhattan are commanding, and the carpeted halls, in soft pastels, are adorned by modern Italian paintings. But Sonia Sotomayor, a partner at the commercial litigation firm, was boxing up her things the other day to take another job. The new one comes with a pay cut, scant carpeting, dingy lighting and a room without a view.
Ms. Sotomayor is thrilled.
"I've gotten letters from people who remember me in grammar school saying that this is what I wanted," she said.
What Ms. Sotomayor has wanted was to be a judge. Next Friday she is to take the oath for a seat on the Federal court of the Southern District of New York, the first Hispanic American to do so. She will also become one of seven women among the district's 58 judges.
But what attaches to her name in legal circles is less her breakthrough status than incredulity: Many of her colleagues say that in a time of skepticism about the quality of judicial appointments, Ms. Sotomayor seems too good to be true. A Child of From the Projects
On paper, she comes across as a classic overachiever -- a child from the Bronx housing projects who graduated summa cum laude from Princeton, became an editor of the Yale Law Journal at Yale Law School, spent five years as a prosecutor with the Manhattan District Attorney, then developed her substantial civil practice as a commercial litigator.
But it was her pro bono activities that an admiring Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts praised during her wrinkle-free confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee in June.
For 12 years she was a top policy maker on the board of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund. She was also on the board of the State of New York Mortgage Agency, where she helped provide mortgage insurance coverage to low-income housing and AIDS hospices. In her leisure time she became a founding member of the New York City Campaign Finance Board, which distributes public money for city campaigns.
Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, who recommended Ms. Sotomayor for the bench, gleefully recalled that when his judicial selection staff first suggested her name last year, they told him, "Have we got a judge for you!" Not Every Inch Judicial
In person, with her round face and faint spray of summer freckles, Ms. Sotomayor looks younger than her 38 years and, wearing dangling earrings and a leather-and-gold bracelet, not every inch the judge. Neither does she have the studied charm nor dazzle factor of many judicial candidates who win accolades from lawyers and politicians.
Hers is a cumulative impression. She is plain-spoken and direct, good-humored but not exactly humorous. She is also seemingly without affectation, a trait that colleagues say helps her move as comfortably among her wealthy European clients as she does in her old Bronx neighborhood, where she recently returned to live. (The Federal Bureau of Investigation advised her not to disclose it.)
"You know anybody who wants to buy my cheap apartment in Carroll Gardens?" she asks in a street-scraped New York accent, referring to the section of Brooklyn.
She moved because Carroll Gardens is not in her judicial district. The courthouse is in Manhattan, but even on a judicial salary of $129,000 -- modest compared with the potential earnings of a law partner -- Ms. Sotomayor has chosen moderation, and a longer commute from the Bronx, which is also in her district.
"I've never wanted to get adjusted to my income because I knew I wanted to go back to public service," she said. "And in comparison to what my mother earns and how I was raised, it's not modest at all." She paused, as if watching a slide show of memories, and laughed heartily. "I have no right to complain," she said.
Her mother, a nurse who recently retired from her job at a methodone clinic, raised Ms. Sotomayor and her younger brother, now a doctor, largely on her own. "I saw her working, being the emotional and spiritual leader in our family," Ms. Sotomayor said. "She had almost a fanatical emphasis on education. We got encyclopedias, and she struggled to make those payments. She kept saying, 'I don't care what you do, but be the best at it.' "
Her father, a tool-and-die worker with a third-grade education, died when Ms. Sotomayor was 9. Both parents were from Puerto Rico, and because her father spoke only Spanish, Ms. Sotomayor did not become fluent in English until after his death.
She had intended to become the Puerto Rican Nancy Drew, girl detective. That dream ended at the age of 7, when doctors told her she had diabetes and suggested she pick a more sedate career. She got a new idea from an episode of "Perry Mason" when a prosecutor character on the old television program said he did not mind losing when a defendant turned out to be innocent because his job was about justice.
"I thought, what a wonderful occupation to have," Ms. Sotomayor said. "And I made the quantum leap: If that was the prosecutor's job, then the guy who made the decision to dismiss the case was the judge. That was what I was going to be."
Even as she speaks of the courts as often the "last refuge for the oppressed," Ms. Sotomayor, who has 400 cases awaiting her, defines a good judge as one who "has the ability to absorb a new area of law quickly, and has a commitment to take control of a case and move it forward."
When colleagues speak of her they emphasize her pragmatism. "I'm a down-to-earth litigator, and that's what I expect I'll be like as a judge," she said. "I'm not going to be able to spend much time on lofty ideals. I don't lose sight of the fact that they're important, but I also don't lose sight that 95 percent of the cases before most judges are fairly mundane. The cases that shake the world don't come along every day. But the world of the litigants is shaken by the existence of their case, and I don't lose sight of that, either."
Indeed, while she speaks of the pressure to crash-learn the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure and the excitement of being fitted for black robes, she keeps returning to "the anxiety and the terror" that joining the Federal bench provokes when she thinks of the sentences and fines she will have to issue.
"I don't get paralyzed by making decisions, but I fear the extent to which I'll be tortured by the difficult decisions I'll have to make," she said.
John W. Fried, her bureau chief when she was a prosecutor, attests to Ms. Sotomayor's decision-making capacity, noting how she would scrupulously search for her own reasonable doubt before going forward with a case. Mr. Fried, now in private practice, said she "was the brightest, most eager assistant I ever worked with."
Then he laughed, recalling that when he met Ms. Sotomayor she asked where the courtroom was.
Although Ms. Sotomayor left the Manhattan District Attorney's office eight years ago, she remembers in detail the victims and the lasting effect that crime had on them. "The saddest crimes for me were the ones that my own people committed against each other," she said. She has received letters from Hispanic people from all walks of life expressing their pride in her confirmation. "I hope there's some greater comfort about the system to Hispanics because I'm there," she said. Careful Responses
While Senator Moynihan is a Democrat, Ms. Sotomayor says she is politically independent, and her chatty expansiveness shuts down when she is asked about judicial philosophy. She allows that she is in the center. Then comes a tap dance around any questions on specific topics, her mouth twitching in amusement, her eyes bright, as if to say, "You're trying to cross-examine a cross examiner?"
How did she react to a recent appeals court ruling that disqualified Federal Judge H. Lee Sarokin from hearing a suit against tobacco companies because an opinion of his about the case appeared biased?
"I'm aware it will have an effect," she said. "Some judges will feel they don't have a right to be too passionate."
When Justice Clarence Thomas was introduced at a Second Judicial Circuit conference, was she among those who sat on her hands rather than give him a standing ovation?
"I'll take the Fifth," she said.
What does she think of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, which many judges resent for limiting discretion?
"I am very aware of the controversy surrounding the guidelines" and expect to "experience some dislocation with them."
So what kind of music do you like?
"Soft rock," the centrist replied.
Judge Jose Cabranes of Federal District Court in New Haven, a longtime mentor who will be administering her oath, cautions that she will quickly find herself leading "a much more isolated life than before."
Ms. Sotomayor, who is divorced, said that becoming a judge is like joining a monastery. So she plans to spend this weekend before her swearing-in with friends in New Orleans, the last such fling for a while.
Rocking out, your honor-to-be?
"Yeah," she said, with a smile and a shrug, "I party."