Sonia Sotomayor LAW ’79, confirmed as a Supreme Court justice on Aug. 6 by the Senate, has come a long way since publishing her first article in the Yale Law Journal.
In the week after President Barack Obama announced her nomination in late May, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals judge began preparing for a confirmation hearing that, at least according to media accounts, seemed to grow more controversial by the day. But most of the 34 of Sotomayor’s Yale Law School classmates interviewed at the time attested to her practicality and intelligence both as a student and a jurist, with confident predictions that she would soon be sworn in.
“People would be surprised by the extent to which she tries to understand the law to apply it,” said Peter Kougasian LAW ’79, her classmate at both the Law School and at Princeton, and 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 many her former classmates, Sotomayor had 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 and legacies.
Sotomayor’s story, though, was somewhat unusual. The daughter of Puerto Rican parents, she grew up in a Bronx housing project. Her father died when she was 9 years old — leaving her mother to fend for her and her brother. She went on to become a high school valedictorian, later studying at Princeton University, where she graduated with honors and won the prestigious M. Taylor Pyne Prize, the highest undergraduate award.
But despite an upbringing radically different from most of her middle- and upper-class peers, Sotomayor seemed to be at home at the Law School, classmates recounted.
“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) and 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.
In a June interview, Yale College Dean Mary Miller said she served alongside Sotomayor on a search committee for a new dean of student affairs when the two of them were students at Princeton. Miller recalled writing a letter with Sotomayor to the Daily Princetonian expressing their frustration with the search’s focus on selecting a minority candidate and the vague role of the student committee.
“The judge was interested in process, even then,” Miller said. “I have only positive memories of a dedicated and serious young woman who was committed to getting things done.”
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 came in handy as Sotomayor faced increasingly heated challenges from Republicans, including charges that she is a racist. Some of her classmates chose to stay mum on the topic of her selection: 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 publicly.
“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.”
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.
Kougasian said 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.”
Sotomayor’s seemingly reserved judicial style in the Ricci v. DeStefano case drew criticism when her name first surfaced as a possible nominee to replace Justice David Souter.
Sotomayor was one of the three judges who decided Ricci after the federal district court ruled against the plaintiffs of the reverse discrimination case, which addressed a promotion exam used by the New Haven Fire Department. It is considered one of her highest-profile decisions while on the Second Circuit (though her 1994 decision ending the baseball strike, when she was a district court judge, 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, which was later overturned by the Supreme Court shortly before Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings, 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 in May. “In a case of this magnitude and intricacy, why would that be?”
Another of her mentors, Judge Guido Calabresi ’53 LAW ’58, former dean of Yale Law School, defended the lower 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.”
“She tends to write narrow opinions,” said Alan Schoenfeld ’02 LAW ’06, Sotomayor’s former clerk, reiterating a criticism that the Second Circuit’s ruling made insufficient reference to the Constitution. “She writes to litigants, litigators and district court judges, not to be included in legal textbooks.”
A JUSTICE OF FIRSTS
Aragon recalled that as two of the few Hispanic students in the Law School, he and Sotomayor shared the need to “be twice as good and work twice as hard.” But he said Sotomayor never let that get the best of her.
At the Law School in 1979, Sotomayor published a note in the Yale Law Journal, 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.”
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.
As Sotomayor became the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice, her jurisprudential influences were scrutinized, her past decisions probed. But for some, including many of her Yale Law School classmates, her record speaks for itself.
Harrison Korn and Divya Subrahmanyam contributed reporting.