Bronx native tapped for high court, would be first Latina justice


President Barack Obama talks with his Supreme Court choice Sonia Sotomayor during the announcement in the East Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

By Jason Fink

and Marlene Naanes

She is a diehard Yankees fan, a self-described “Nuyorican” and a tough judge with a sharp legal mind whose no-nonsense manner was born in the South Bronx of her childhood.

And if President Barack Obama has his way, Judge Sonia Sotomayor, 54, will be the next U.S. Supreme Court justice, completing an incredible journey that began in the Bronxdale Houses public housing complex and found her Tuesday in the East Room of the White House, beaming as she stood next to the president.

“I am an ordinary person who has been blessed with extraordinary opportunities and experiences,” said Sotomayor, who will be the first Latina judge on the High Court if confirmed.Those who know her describe Sotomayor, a federal appeals court judge, as a confident, practical jurist who controls the courtroom and focuses on the arguments before her with laser-like precision.

“Her probing mind is very much a trait of her background,” said Cesar Perales, who knew Sotomayor when she served on the board of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund in the 1980s, when he was CEO. “I would hope that during the confirmation hearings, people don't start saying she's pushy. That's the way New Yorkers are.”

While Sotomayor's nomination is expected to pass the Democratic-majority Senate, critics Tuesday blasted what they called an overtly ideological tenure as a judge.

"Judge Sotomayor is a liberal judicial activist of the first order who thinks her own personal political agenda is more important that the law as written," said Wendy Long of the Judicial Confirmation Network. "She thinks that judges should dictate policy, and that one's sex, race, and ethnicity ought to affect the decisions one renders from the bench.”

Thomas Dupree Jr., a deputy assistant attorney general under President George W. Bush, said what he most remembers about Sotomayor, before whom he argued five cases at the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan, were her rapid-fire questions and ability to get to the heart of a case quickly.

“She will call upon you to defend . . . the weakest parts of your argument and that's what a good judge does,” he said. “When you argue in front of Judge Sotomayor you better be prepared.”

Sotomayor, whose parents came form Puerto Rico, had said she knew she wanted to be a judge when she was 10 years old, the year after her father died and shortly after she was diagnosed with diabetes. Her mother, Celina, worked six days a week to send her and her brother to Catholic school and education was a top priority in the Sotomayor household, former neighbors at the Bronxdale Houses said Tuesday.

“They were a nice family,” said Lorelei McGhee, who grew up with Sotomayor and still lives at Bronxdale. “(Celina) was an excellent mother. She was one who made sure you did your homework.”

Jeri Faulkner, 52, served in student government with Sotomayor at Cardinal Spellman High School, where she is now dean of students.

“She seemed to have the entire package,” Faulkner said. “She was smart, approachable, she was someone who would laugh with you not at you. She always had time for your questions, no matter how silly they seemed to be.”

Even those too young to have known Sotomayor said her nomination is an inspiration for those with similar backgrounds.

“I'm basically speechless right now,” said Bronxdale resident Fernando Ares, 19. “It gives hopes to so many people that they can change their lives. It doesn't matter where you come from, you can dream.”

Pervaiz Shallwani contributed this story

Tags: sonia sotomayor , supreme court , politics

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