Sotomayor breaks records

Earlier this month, Judge Sonia Sotomayor LAW ’79 took her seat as a Supreme Court justice, replacing retiring Justice David Souter.

It had been a nomination of records. Sotomayor, 54, is the first Hispanic justice on the High Court, only the third woman, and the ninth to have attended Yale Law School. Her confirmation, though, was not without controversy.

As an appellate judge on the New York–based United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit since 1998, she summarily rejected hearing the controversial reverse discrimination lawsuit Ricci v. Destefano. Her decision drew the ire of Senate Republicans, particularly after the Supreme Court reversed the decision June 29, shortly before her confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee. A 2001 comment on her background as a “wise Latina” also returned to haunt her in those hearings.

In two days of questioning, Sotomayor faced the 19-member committee, only winning over one Republican, Sen. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina.

Frank Ricci, the lead plaintiff in the case bearing his name, did not address Sotomayor in his testimony before the Judiciary Committee, speaking only to the frustration he and his colleagues faced when they were denied promotions after no black firefighters scored well enough on a city-administered exam to earn promotion.

The firefighter said the appellate court’s ruling “divides people who don’t wish to be divided along racial lines.”

New Haven’s Lt. Ben Vargas, who is Hispanic, congratulated Sotomayor on being the first Hispanic nominee for the Court. But he took aim at Sotomayor, saying he felt his rights were violated by the ruling she joined in handing down.

“I expected Lady Justice with the blindfolds on and a reasoned opinion from a federal court of appeals, telling me, my fellow plaintiffs and the public what that court’s view on the law was and do it in an open and transparent way,” Vargas said. “Instead, we were devastated to see a one-paragraph unpublished order summarily dismissing our case and indeed even the notion that we had presented important legal issues to that court of appeals.”

Upon her confirmation by the full Senate on Aug. 6 in a 68-31 vote, Sotomayor joined two other Elis — Clarence Thomas LAW ’74 and Samuel Alito LAW ’75 — on the Supreme Court.

“My heart today is bursting with gratitude,” Sotomayor said from the White House lectern after Obama first announced her nomination.

In his announcement, the president called Sotomayor “an inspiring woman,” and said she has “faced down barriers” and “overcame the odds” in her journey from a Bronx housing project to two elite universities, Princeton and Yale, and then to the federal bench.

Sotomayor reflected on that journey after her nomination. “I strive never to forget the real-world consequences of my decisions on individuals, businesses and government,” she said.

Yale Law School professor and former acting dean Kate Stith, whose husband, Jose Cabranes LAW ’65, served with Sotomayor on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, was one of the many who testified on the judge’s behalf.

Sotomayor was sworn in by Chief Justice John Roberts at the Supreme Court on Aug. 8.

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