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Sonia Sotomayor

The U.S. Supreme Court’s 111th Justice and the first Hispanic American Justice

Biography

Sonia Sotomayor was born in the Bronx, a borough of New York City and is of Puerto Rican descent. Her father died when she was nine years old, and she and her younger brother were raised by her mother. At the young age of ten, she decided that she would attend college and become an attorney.

After graduating high school, Sotomayor attended Princeton University on a full scholarship. She became a student activist and co-chair of the campus organization Accion Puertorriquena, which served as a social and political activist group for Puerto Rican students. She focused on faculty hiring and curriculum by raising awareness that Princeton did not have any full-time Latino professors, or any classes on Latin America. When the schools president did not produce any results, the organization filed a formal letter of complaint in April 1974 with the Department of Health, Education and Welfare stating that the school discriminated in its hiring and admissions practices. This action resulted in the hiring of Latino faculty and the addition of a course on Puerto Rican history and politics.

In the fall of 1976, after graduating summa cum laude from Princeton, Sotomayor went on to attend Yale Law School where she was the editor of the Yale Law Journal and continued to be an advocate for civil rights. She co-chaired a group for Latin, Asian and Native American students where she advocated for the hiring of more Hispanic faculty at the law school.

Sotomayor worked as an Assistant District Attorney in New York for five years before entering private practice in 1984. She also played a significant role on the board of directors for the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund. In 1991, she was nominated to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York by President George H.W. Bush and was confirmed in 1992. In 1997, she was nominated by President Bill Clinton to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and was confirmed in 1998. In this position, Sotomayor has heard appeals in more than 3,000 cases and has written approximately 380 opinions. She has also taught at the New York University School of Law and Columbia Law School.

On May 26, 2009, President Barack Obama nominated Sotomayor for appointment to the United States Supreme Court to replace retiring Justice David Souter. On August 6, 2009, Sotomayor’s appointment was confirmed by the United States Senate. She became the 111th Justice to the Supreme Court. She is also the court’s first Hispanic Justice and its third female.

Sotomayor’s Work on Civil Rights and Education

Throughout her career, Sotomayor has been involved in many civil rights cases. She was a member of the Second Circuit Task Force on Gender, Racial and Ethnic Fairness in Courts. In October 2001, she presented the annual Judge Mario G. Olmos Memorial Lecture at UC Berkeley School of Law, entitled "A Latina Judge’s Voice." In her speech, she discussed what it was like for her growing up as a Latina and how her experiences might affect her decisions as a judge. However, in her cases, her past has not shown to influence her ruling.

Ricci v. DeStefano (2008)

Sotomayor was a member of a 2008 Second Circuit panel in the high-profile and controversial case Ricci v. DeStefano. She upheld the right of the City of New Haven to throw out its test for firefighters and produce a new test because no black firefighters qualified for promotion under the new test. The city wanted to throw the test out because they were concerned that minority firefighters might sue under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Title VII prevents discrimination in employment and requires employers to consider the racial impact of their hiring and promotion procedures in order to prevent discrimination that’s both intentional and unintentional. Several white firefighters and one Hispanic firefighter who all passed the test sued the city claiming that their rights were violated and it was reverse discrimination. Sotomayor voted against a rehearing of the case because the firefighters did not have a viable Title VII claim. However, this decision was reversed with a 5-4 decision by the Supreme Court.

Gant v. Wallingford Board of Education (1999)

Ray Gant was a student in a Connecticut elementary school and was the only black student in his class. His parents alleged that he was harassed in school due to his race, and had been discriminated against when he was transferred from a first grade class to a kindergarten class without parental consent. Though Sotomayor agreed with the majority decision of the three-judge panel to dismiss, she dissented from the decision in part. She agreed to dismiss the racial harassment claim, but dissented to the transfer not being race discrimination. She stated that the transfer was “unprecedented and contrary to the school’s established policies” because white students experiencing academic difficulties received compensatory help. But Gant was not given an equal chance by being demoted to a kindergarten class just nine days after he arrived at the school.

The Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court is the highest judicial body in the United States. It is sometimes referred to as the High Court. It consists of the Chief Justice of the United States and eight Associate Justices. Each Justice is nominated by the President of the United States and is confirmed by the Senate. Once Justices are appointed, they have life tenure which terminates only upon death, resignation, retirement or convicted impeachment. The court meets in Washington, D.C. in the United States Supreme Court Building.

Current Members

  • John G. Roberts (Chief Justice) - Nominated by President George W. Bush, 2005
  • John Paul Stevens - Nominated by President Gerald Ford, 1975
  • Antonin Scalia - Nominated by President Ronald Reagan, 1986
  • Anthony Kennedy - Nominated by President Ronald Reagan, 1988
  • Clarence Thomas - Nominated by President George H.W. Bush, 1991
  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg - Nominated by President Bill Clinton, 1993
  • Stephen Beyer - Nominated by President Bill Clinton, 1994
  • Samuel Alito - Nominated by President George W. Bush, 2006
  • Sonia Sotomayor - Nominated by President Barack Obama, 2009

Resources

Sonia Sotomayor, Supreme Court Nominee: All You Need to Know
This article has an abundance of information on Sotomayor’s life including her childhood, education, and career.
www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/05/01/sonia-sotomayor-supreme-c_n_194470.html

Judge Sotomayor’s Appellate Opinions in Civil Cases
This site has information on the opinions and rulings that Sotomayor has issued in civil cases during her career as an appellate judge.
www.scotusblog.com/2009/05/judge-sotomayors-appellate-opinions-in-civil-cases/

Where Does Sotomayor Stand on School Issues?
This U.S. News article highlights three of Sotomayor’s education cases and the decisions she made. The article also looks at how these decisions can offer clues for how she may take on education cases in the future if she joins the court.
www.usnews.com/blogs/on-education/2009/06/11/where-does-judge-sonia-sotomayor-stand-on-school-issues.html

A Latina Judge’s Voice
Read Sotomayoy's speech from the annual Judge Mario G. Olmos Memorial Lecture at UC Berkeley School of Law in October 2001.
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124404782092281817.html

Role Play
This activity can be great for students in grades K-6 where they can act out the roles of justices and have a mock trial in the classroom. This site gives extensive directions on how role play can be applied in classrooms.
www.streetlaw.org/en/Page.Landmark.strategies.roleplay.aspx

Lesson Plan: Formation and Function of the Supreme Court
This site has background information and activities about the Supreme Court to use with the high school students.
www.pbs.org/newshour/extra/teachers/lessonplans/history/scotus_function.html

Landmark Supreme Court Cases
This site provides teachers with a range of resources and activities for teaching landmark Supreme Court cases. Most activities can be tailored to work for students ranging from upper elementary grades through high school.
www.streetlaw.org/en/landmark.aspx