LatinXcellence: Sonia Sotomayor, the First Latina on the U.S. Supreme Court
Celebrate Latinx Heritage Month with People CHICA's LatinXcellence series, spotlighting the incredible women who are changing the world through their work and activism. Today we focus on Sonia Sotomayor, the first Latina justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Here at People CHICA we celebrate our Latinidad 365 days a year, but during Latinx Heritage Month, we go extra hard. Established in 1988, Latinx Heritage Month recognizes the generations of Latinx Americans who have positively influenced and enhanced our society. All month long, we'll be celebrating with a series called #LatinXcellence, highlighting women who are making a difference in Latinx culture today through their art, work and activism.
The Supreme Court of the United States is the highest court in the U.S. federal judiciary, but until 1981, no woman had ever served on the bench. Since then, only three other women have served, and only one of them is Latina: Sonia Sotomayor, who became the first Latinx justice to serve when former President Barack Obama appointed her in 2009.
Born in the Bronx to Puerto Rican parents, Justice Sotomayor graduated summa cum laude from Princeton University in 1976 — on a full scholarship! — and in 1979 received her J.D. from Yale Law School, where she was an editor at the Yale Law Journal. She began her law career as an assistant district attorney in NYC, then went into private practice in 1984; in her spare time, she managed to serve on the board for the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, the New York City Campaign Finance Board, and the State of New York Mortgage Agency.
In 1991, the late President George H.W. Bush nominated Sotomayor to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, and in 1997, former President Bill Clinton nominated her to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. She was sworn in to the Supreme Court on August 8, 2009, and has since become one of the court's most reliably liberal judges, voting to legalize same-sex marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges and writing the dissenting opinion in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. “I wouldn't approach the issue of judging in the way the president does,” she said during her confirmation hearing. “Judges can't rely on what's in their heart. They don't determine the law. Congress makes the law. The job of a judge is to apply the law.”
Sotomayor has also taught at the New York University School of Law and Columbia Law School, and somehow has found time to write a memoir and three children's books. “I realized that people had an unreal image of me, that somehow I was a god on Mount Olympus,” she said in a TIME interview. “I decided that if I were going to make use of my role as a Supreme Court Justice, it would be to inspire people to realize that, first, I was just like them and second, if I could do it, so could they.”
A few of Sotomayor's numerous other achievements include her honorary law degrees from many universities, the Outstanding Latino Professional Award in 2006, the Woodrow Wilson Award from her alma mater Princeton in 2013, and the Katharine Hepburn Medal from Bryn Mawr College in 2015. In 2010, the Bronxdale Houses development, where she grew up, was renamed after her, and the following year, a public high school complex in L.A. was named the Sonia M. Sotomayor Learning Academies.
“I am the perfect affirmative action baby,” she said in the '90s. “I am Puerto Rican, born and raised in the south Bronx. My test scores were not comparable to my colleagues at Princeton and Yale. Not so far off so that I wasn't able to succeed at those institutions.” No kidding — only 114 people have served on the Supreme Court in the history of the U.S.