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Supreme Court Nominee a Role Model in the Bronx

Confirmation hearings are set to begin July 13 for President Obama's first nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court: federal appeals court Judge Sonia Sotomayor of New York City. Sotomayor, 55, would be the first Supreme Court justice of Hispanic descent and the first to come from the South Bronx, a poor neighborhood in northern New York City.

In the Bronx neighborhood where Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor grew up, a young man said her nomination means a great deal to him.

“It shows that we could be somebody, because she made it out of here,” said William Vargas. “A lot of kids, because we're from the projects, a lot of people don't want to give us opportunities to be somebody, and it just motivates people like us to be somebody."

Sotomayor moved to the Bronxdale housing projects as a three-year-old, with her infant brother and their parents, working-class Puerto Ricans. Her father, a factory worker who had only a few years of education, died when she was nine, a year after she was diagnosed with diabetes. Sotomayor’s mother, Celina, was a nurse who sometimes worked two jobs at a time to support the family.

In a video made by the Law School Admissions Council several years ago, Sotomayor spoke about her mother, saying, “I am who I am only because of my mother. And I am only half the woman that she is. When I think of the adversity that she has overcome, it leaves me in awe.”

Sotomayor's cousin, Milagros Baez O'Toole, remembers how Celina Sotomayor sacrificed to pay her children’s tuition at private Catholic schools.

“Her mother was very strong in her message that education was the predominant factor in a young person's life,” she said. O’Toole said that Sotomayor also learned from her parents and extended family to prize her Hispanic heritage. “We were very proud of being Puerto Rican, and it was a very good thing for us to be,” she said. “It was inculcated by our parents, they were proud of being Puerto Rican, and very intent on our not losing our heritage and language.”

Sotomayor was valedictorian of her highly selective Catholic high school class and won a scholarship to an Ivy League university, Princeton. She was one of only a few Hispanic students there in the mid-1970s, including a friend from the high school debate team, Sergio Sotolongo. He remembers her as a serious student with a strong sense of responsibility.

“I think there was a deep desire on the part of Sonia to make sure that wherever she ended up, that she gave back in whatever way she could,” Sotolongo said.

He says she was fascinated by issues of law and social justice and although quiet, was not afraid to speak out, whether for more minority faculty members or in favor of gay rights. She took a petition for more Hispanic faculty and studies of Hispanic culture directly to Princeton’s president, for example, when he didn’t respond to a letter.

“Given where she grew up, given where she came from, she didn’t feel obligated to be part of a big popular mass,” Sotolongo said. “All her life she was someone who was different, and differences were meant to be celebrated. So there was no shame in maybe being ostracized because you didn’t follow the popular path, but you always spoke up when you thought there was injustice."

Yet she didn't call attention to herself, Sotolongo said, or even mention it when she won the top honor for Princeton undergraduates, the Pyne prize. He read about the award in the campus newspaper.

After college, Sotomayor went on to Yale Law School, and from there to a career in New York as a prosecutor and private attorney. She was named as a judge to the U.S. district court in New York in 1991, and joined the U.S. court of appeals in 1998. In the promotional video by the Law School Admissions Council, she said impartiality was her first obligation as a judge.

"I have to unhook myself from my emotional responses and try to stay within my unemotional, objective persona,” she said. “That process can be very weighty at times. It certainly can be very awe-inspiring in others."

If confirmed, Sotomayor will become the third woman ever to serve on the Supreme Court. But as the first Hispanic justice, she will make many people from her old neighborhood proud.

A clerk at a store near her old home who gave his name as Emilio said the nomination “represents all of the Hispanic people around the Bronx and across the United States. It’s a big job.”

Republican members of Congress and other conservatives have criticized the nomination, charging that Sotomayor is biased towards minorities and has a political agenda. Sotomayor, who is divorced with no children, has said her life experiences and Hispanic heritage inform her understanding of the issues she faces as a judge, but that her decisions are based on the law. Legal analysts say Sotomayor's record as a federal judge suggests that she is not a reformer, but a cautious jurist who, like David Souter, the Supreme Court justice she is slated to replace, prizes legal precedent.