Sonia Sotomayor LAW ’79, nominated Tuesday by President Barack Obama to become the first Hispanic justice on the Supreme Court, has come a long way since publishing her first article in the Yale Law Journal.
As the Second Circuit Court of Appeals judge prepares for a confirmation hearing that, at least according to media accounts, seems to grow more controversial by the day, most of the 34 of Sotomayor’s Yale Law School classmates interviewed for this article attested to her practicality and intelligence both as a student and a jurist.
“She is a person of passionate commitments,” said Peter Kougasian LAW ’79, who was her classmate at both the Law School and Princeton, “and the most important one is her commitment to the rule of law.
“People would be surprised by the extent to which she tries to understand the law to apply it,” said Kougasian, who also worked alongside Sotomayor at the New York County District Attorney’s Office after they graduated. “Temperamentally she is reluctant to take a bold step when a prudent one would do.”
According to her former classmates, Sotomayor has always been an intellectually curious person, though sometimes quietly so. Not one to stand out for the sake of standing out, Sotomayor was, nonetheless, an involved student at the Law School. And while she was unquestionably bright, she never emerged as a star – as someone who would one day be nominated to serve on America’s highest court.
SHE’S ‘NO SOFTIE’
By all accounts, the Yale Law School class of 1979 was just like every other — filled with bright minds and impressive personalities.
Sotomayor, who grew up in a Bronx housing project, was in many ways different. The daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants, Sotomayor’s father died when she was 9 years old — leaving her mother to fend for her and her brother.
After graduating as valedictorian from her high school, Sotomayor studied at Princeton University, where she graduated with honors, winning the prestigious M. Taylor Pyne Prize, the highest undergraduate award.
So despite an upbringing radically different from most of her middle- and upper-class peers, Sotomayor was at home at the Law School.
“She seemed to fit in with everybody,” recalled Susan Hoffman LAW ’79, now an attorney in California. “Yale Law School typically has students that are very competitive, but she was loved by everyone.”
Rudolph Aragon LAW ’79, a close friend who was in Sotomayor’s “small group” (the group of 15 or so students with whom Sotomayor shared her first year classes) who introduced her when she was awarded the Public Service Award from the Yale Law School Latino Law Students Association in 2007, said she was active on campus.
“She didn’t just hang around the study carrel,” he said, making a note of her involvement in various campus groups, including the Latin American and Native American Students Association, which the two of them chaired.
Sotomayor’s classmates and friends rejected accusations that she is anything but courteous on the bench, many specifically addressing a biting piece by Jeffery Rosen in The New Republic. The article quoted people close to Sotomayor during her time as an appellate judge who claimed she was “domineering.”
Stephen Carter LAW ’79, a professor at the Law School, and the editor who worked with Sotomayor on her article in the Yale Law Journal remembers her respect for those who disagreed with her.
“She enjoys the give-and-take of argument, and did even when she was a law student,” he said. “She does not mind being disagreed with — that is, her ego is not at stake when she takes a position.”
It is a temperament that may come in handy, as Sotomayor faces increasingly heated challenges from the right side of the aisle, including charges that she is a racist. Some of her classmates chose to stay mum on the topic of her candidacy: Seven of them declined to comment on her suitability for the job, saying that they disagreed with her politically and did not want to oppose her publically.
“She has a very good judicial temper, but she is no softie,” Aragon said. “She can be aggressive on the bench — she is very smart and very curious.”
A former clerk for Sotomayor, Alan Schoenfeld ’02 LAW ’06, agreed, noting his experiences in her courtroom.
“I think she is fierce on the bench, as she should be,” he said. “She wants to get it right, and she will do whatever she needs to get it right. She will be vigorous and do so unapologetically.”
TO SOME, A SURPRISE
At the Law School, Sotomayor’s nickname was “S.S. De Noonan,” according to classmates — though there is some dispute as to whether she knew about it — a play on her married name, Sonia Sotomayor de Noonan.
(Sotomayor married Kevin Noonan, now a biologist and attorney, just before entering Yale Law School. They divorced in 1983.)
While well-liked, she was not considered the brightest in her year, according to many classmates. That title belonged to either Paul Smith LAW ’79, the editor in chief of the Yale Law Journal, or Carter, a note editor on the law journal and the winner of the best orator prize in the prestigious, biannual Thurman Arnold Moot Court Competition.
And while most of her classmates said they are confident that Sotomayor would serve as an excellent justice if confirmed, over half of those interviewed said that, 30 years ago, news of her selection would have surprised them.
“If you had come up with a list of people in our class that would be named to the Supreme Court, she would not have been on it,” said one former classmate.
Others came to her defense, saying that she may not have seemed like a likely candidate because, as a student, Sotomayor was “never a prima donna,” as Hoffman put it.
“She had an opinion, but she wasn’t someone who talked a lot just to make people think she was smart,” Hoffman explained.
Said Kougasian, Sotomayor distinguished herself as a student through her maturity of judgment.
“It was one of the first things that struck you about her,” he said. “She was a person who had a broad experience of life, and she brought all of that to her work and to her interpersonal interactions.”
It was Sotomayor’s seemingly reserved judicial style in the now-infamous Ricci v. DeStefano case that has drawn criticism since her name first surfaced as a possible nominee to replace Justice David Souter.
Sotomayor was of the judges deciding Ricci, a reverse discrimination case addressing a promotion examination used by the New Haven Fire Department. Considered one of her highest profile decisions while on the Second Circuit (her 1994 decision as a district court judge ending the baseball strike brought her far more attention), Sotomayor and two other judges summarily rejected the appeal filed by one Hispanic and 19 white firefighters to continue the lawsuit against the city.
The decision included only one paragraph of substantive text, and its brevity disturbed many fellow Second Circuit judges — including one of her mentors at Yale Law School, former University general counsel Jose Cabranes LAW ’65.
Emily Bazelon ’93 LAW ’00, a senior editor at Slate Magazine, was one of dozens in the media to question Sotomayor’s silence in the Ricci case. “Did she really have nothing to add to the district court opinion?” she wrote in a column recently. “In a case of this magnitude and intricacy, why would that be?”
The full appeals court decided against rehearing the case in a 7-6 decision four months later.
While Cabranes wrote that he was concerned that “the opinion contains no reference whatsoever to the constitutional claims at the core of this case,” those close to Sotomayor said they are not surprised by the concision of the judgment.
“She tends to write narrow opinions,” said Schoenfeld, Sotomayor’s former clerk. “She writes to litigants, litigators and district court judges not to be included in legal textbooks.”
“I don’t think Ricci testifies one way or another to her minimalizing,” he continued. “The legal question was squarely decided by Second Circuit precedent — there was clear Second Circuit law.”
Another of her mentors, Judge Guido Calabresi ’53 LAW ’58, former dean of Yale Law School, defended the courts’ decision.
“Difficult issues should be decided only when they must be decided, or when they are truly well-presented,” he argued in his concurrence to the decision not to rehear the case. “When they need not be decided it is wise to wait until they come up in a manner that helps, rather than hinders, clarity of thought. That is not so in this case.”
A JUSTICE OF FIRSTS
At the Law School, Sotomayor was published in the Yale Law Journal, her note titled, “Statehood and the Equal Footing Doctrine: The Case for Puerto Rican Seabed Rights.”
Several members of the editorial board who reviewed the article for publication said admitting her work was one of the easiest decisions they made during their time at the notoriously competitive journal.
“I was struck by her diligence in tracking down the most obscure references,” said Carter, who worked closely with Sotomayor on the piece, “and in trying to steer an original and practical course through thorny issues of constitutional interpretation.”
Aragon recalled that as two of the few Hispanic students in the Law School, they shared the need to “be twice as good and work twice as hard.” But Aragon said Sotomayor never let that get the best of her.
In 1978, when interviewing for jobs, Sotomayor accused the firm Shaw, Pittman, Potts & Trowbridge of discriminating against her because of her Puerto Rican heritage. A panel of students and faculty forced the firm to apologize in a letter after finding in Sotomayor’s favor in a subsequent review.
Aragon said Sotomayor is proud of her heritage — and her upbringing — citing her close relationship with her mother, Celina.
“All of these things — her family, her background, her education and her experience as a district judge — inform her decisions,” Aragon said.
As Sotomayor attempts to become the first Hispanic Supreme Court Justice, her jurisprudential influences will be scrutinized, her past decisions probed. But for some, including many of her Yale Law School classmates, her record speaks for itself.
Harrison Korn contributed reporting.