WASHINGTON — Sonia Sotomayor is a groundbreaking nominee for the Supreme Court who defies easy pigeonholing.
She's a tough-minded former prosecutor who's denounced the death penalty.
She's a product of South Bronx public housing who excelled in the Ivy League.
She's fiercely proud of her Latino heritage but has both challenged and embraced racial discrimination claims.
Now, starting Monday, the Senate Judiciary Committee will give lawmakers and the world at large a crack at the question: Just who is Sonia Sotomayor?
"Sonia does not fit the label of a liberal or a conservative," said Hugh Mo, a former colleague in the New York district attorney's office. "She also is not going to fit the label of someone who is a so-called activist judge or a strict constructionist."
By nominating the 55-year-old Sotomayor, Obama picked a candidate with one of the most distinctive backgrounds of any Supreme Court nominee.
Sotomayor was born June 25, 1954, in New York. From the start, she's overcome multiple hurdles. At age 8, she was diagnosed with Type I diabetes. This lifelong disease renders her more susceptible to heart failure, stroke and nerve damage, as well as a shorter life span.
A year after her diabetes diagnosis, Sotomayor's father, Juan, died of heart complications.
Urged on to be an avid reader by her mother, Celina, Sotomayor attended the Bronx's competitive Cardinal Spellman High School. There, students wear uniforms and school policy directs them to comport themselves as "Christian ladies and gentlemen."
Sotomayor entered Princeton University in September 1972. As she later told audiences, she recognized that her test scores alone wouldn't have won her admission to the Ivy League school. Affirmative action helped, too.
"At Princeton, I began a lifelong commitment to identifying myself as a Latina, taking pride in being Hispanic, and in recognizing my obligation to help my community reach its fullest potential in this society," Sotomayor said in 1996.
Sotomayor outworked many of her peers, graduating summa cum laude. She also started becoming an aggressive advocate, joining a complaint filed in 1974 with the federal government over Princeton's low Hispanic representation.
Sotomayor continued her activism after college and law school. From 1980 to 1992, she was active with the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, whose priorities ranged from boosting bilingual education to opposing the death penalty.
"Capital punishment is associated with evident racism in our society," Sotomayor and two other defense fund leaders wrote in a March 1981 memo. "The number of minorities and the poor executed or awaiting execution is out of proportion to their numbers in the population."
Republican critics cite these Puerto Rican advocacy efforts. Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the Senate Judiciary Committee's senior GOP member, called the organization "clearly outside the mainstream."
Others have labeled her an "activist judge."
They criticize her for siding in a recent discrimination case with the city of New Haven, Conn., which denied promotions to several white firefighters because no blacks and only one Hispanic scored high enough on the promotion exam.
Five other members of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals joined the decision, which the U.S. Supreme Court overturned late last month.
Critics also zeroed in on her statement in 2001 that her "hope" was that a "wise Latina with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life."
Former colleagues and court adversaries, however, said that Sotomayor is no extremist. If anything, her years as a prosecutor have made her more sympathetic to law enforcement.
"She comes with a prosecutorial bent," said Gerald Lefcourt, a longtime New York criminal defense attorney who has argued against her in court. "And she was a zealous prosecutor."
Sotomayor joined the New York district attorney's office in 1979. Close associates said she was a workaholic who spoke more frequently of upcoming trials than of her personal life.
Sotomayor started off working misdemeanor and minor felonies. By 1983, she helped convict the "Tarzan murderer," who'd terrorized the city by climbing into apartments to rob and killing victims in a three-month crime spree.
"She was right there in the trenches," said Mo, her former colleague.
That year, Sotomayor's seven-year marriage to lawyer Kevin Noonan ended in divorce. She's never remarried.
In April 1984, Sotomayor joined the firm Pavia & Harcourt, a small commercial law firm with a host of top-drawer international clients. The Ivy League-groomed girl from the Bronx represented the quintessence of stylish living: the international jewelry retailer Bulgari, the sunglasses company Lozza and the Italian handbag manufacturer Fendi.
The work had its dramatic moments, especially when Sotomayor went after gang-affiliated stores and street vendors selling counterfeit goods.
"It was like the wild, wild West," recalled Baker & Hostetler lawyer Heather McDonald, who worked alongside Sotomayor. "We would come zooming up in these blue vans . . . and we would find ourselves on these nasty floors in Chinatown, counting these counterfeit items."
Sotomayor made a good but not spectacular living in private practice, earning about $230,000 in today's dollars in her final year. She hasn't become much wealthier on a judge's salary, which is $174,000 a year. Her $1 million, two-bedroom condo in New York is now her greatest asset, and she doesn't report owning any stocks or bonds.
Sotomayor's real social elevation occurred once she joined the federal bench.
She won a 10-year term on the Princeton University Board of Trustees, where she mingles with columnist George Will and ABC News anchor Charles Gibson.
In 2008, she joined the Belizean Grove, which describes itself as "a constellation of influential women who are key decision makers." On June 19, Sotomayor resigned from the all-female club.
"I believe that the Belizean Grove does not practice invidious discrimination . . . but I do not want questions about this to distract anyone from my qualifications and record," Sotomayor explained.
Appointed to the federal bench by President George H.W. Bush and confirmed in 1992, Sotomayor oversaw 61 cases that went all the way to verdicts or judgments. Her most noteworthy decision came in 1995, when she issued a temporary injunction to end the baseball strike.
The National Labor Relations Board had accused baseball owners of unfair labor practices. Meanwhile, the clock was ticking on the baseball season.
"When we went into court Monday morning to argue the case, Judge Sotomayor said the only thing I know about this case is what I read in The New York Times," said Daniel Silverman, then an attorney for the National Labor Relations Board. "By Friday, she had read everything we had written and everything the employers had written."
President Bill Clinton elevated Sotomayor to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 1998. Out of some 380 majority opinions, the Supreme Court considered six of her written decisions and reversed Sotomayor four times, a rate comparable to other appellate judges' batting averages before the Supreme Court.
Sotomayor has written only 21 dissents as an appellate judge, rarely venturing beyond a meat-and-potatoes prose style. More than 90 percent of the time, she's voted to affirm criminal convictions.
Sotomayor is known as a tough and persistent questioner from the bench, which has alienated some attorneys. Some, speaking anonymously, have been highly critical of her aggressive posture.
Mo, however, likened this persistence to the way she used to come into his office during tough cases and pepper him with questions.
"She wanted to make sure that she truly understood what she was talking about," he said. "Sonia is the perfect example of someone who is striving to achieve."
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
McClatchy Newspapers 2009