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High Court Nominee's Success Against Odds

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Less than a month after Supreme Court Justice David Souter announced his retirement, President Obama has chosen a replacement.

President BARACK OBAMA: I've decided to nominate an inspiring woman who I believe will make a great justice, Judge Sonia Sotomayor…

(Soundbite of applause)

Pres. OBAMA: …of the great state of New York.

BLOCK: If confirmed, Sotomayor would be the first Hispanic justice, and only the third woman to sit on the country's highest court. She's 54 years old.

NORRIS: This morning, President Obama spoke about what he called her extraordinary journey. Born in the South Bronx to Puerto Rican parents, raised in a public housing project, educated at Princeton and Yale. She served as a public prosecutor, a corporate litigator, a trial judge and for the past decade, a federal appeals judge.

Pres. OBAMA: Walking in the door, she would bring more experience on the bench, and more varied experience on the bench, than anyone currently serving on the United States Supreme Court had when they were appointed.

BLOCK: Today, Sonia Sotomayor said that wealth of experience has informed her work as a judge.

Judge SONIA SOTOMAYOR (U.S. Circuit Court): It has helped me to understand, respect and respond to the concerns and arguments of all litigants who appear before me, as well as to the views of my colleagues on the bench.

BLOCK: The president's choice has pleased Senate Democrats. Republicans, meanwhile, are expressing caution.

NORRIS: Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell promised fair treatment of Sotomayor, and a thorough examination of her record.

Senator MITCH MCCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky): What I would like to see is somebody who, I think, can put aside their personal views and their political philosophy, and call it based upon what the law says. Some judges do a better job of that than others. I really don't know enough about the nominee to call it yet.

BLOCK: Well, we're going to begin learning about Sonia Sotomayor by looking at her history. As NPR's Robert Smith reports, the White House is focusing on her life journey.

ROBERT SMITH: As President Obama knows, a compelling personal story can get you far in politics. So the president went into detail this morning, talking up Sotomayor's rags-to-robe story.

Pres. OBAMA: What Sonia will bring to the court, then, is not only the knowledge and experience acquired over a course of a brilliant legal career, but the wisdom accumulated from an inspiring life's journey.

SMITH: At the announcement this morning, Judge Sotomayor singled out her mother as the starting point and inspiration for that journey. Sotomayor's father died when she was 9. And her mother worked as a nurse at a methadone clinic to send her and her brother to a prestigious Catholic school.

Judge SOTOMAYOR: My mother has devoted her life to my brother and me. She worked, often, two jobs to help support us after Dad died. I have often said that I am all I am because of her. And I am only half the woman she is.

SMITH: Sotomayor often tells the story of how, when she was growing up in the South Bronx, her only conception of the legal profession came from TV and books - that she loved Perry Mason and Nancy Drew. But President Obama says even then, she faced a hurdle.

Pres. OBAMA: When she was diagnosed with diabetes at the age of 8, she was informed that people with diabetes can't grow up to be police officers or private investigators like Nancy Drew. And that's when she was told she'd have to scale back her dreams.

SMITH: But her life after that was anything but scaled back. With the help of scholarships, Sotomayor jumped from the South Bronx onto the well-worn, Ivy League path to the judiciary. She attended Princeton, saying later that she felt like a visitor landing in an alien country. She went to law school at Yale. Her first professor was Judge Guido Calabresi, who dug out her final exam to see what he wrote.

Judge GUIDO CALABRESI (U.S. Court of Appeals): My note said that she knows her stuff. She's careful,but makes good, original points as well, a good - underlined - exam.

SMITH: Does that mean you never give a great?

Judge CALABRESI: Oh, I don't give greats.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Judge CALABRESI: Good underlined is as good as I get.

SMITH: Sotomayor became the editor of the Law Review. And her friends and colleagues expected that she would perhaps enter academics or social justice. Instead, she decided to fight crime, becoming an assistant D.A. in Manhattan. During that period, she told the New York Times that she realized that the worst victims of crimes are minorities. She said, quote: No matter how liberal I am, I'm still outraged by crimes of violence.

Cesar Perales knew Sotomayor during this time. He served with her on the board of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Mr. CESAR PERALES (Executive Director, Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund): Sonia used her role as a prosecutor to do what she could to advance justice. And it was, I guess, in a sense, though, a way for her to get back into the real world. She'd spent seven years in the Ivy League. And it was important that she feel grounded in what the world was about.

SMITH: That grounding would also include a stint in private practice before she was appointed to the federal bench by the first President Bush. Guido Calabresi now serves with Sotomayor on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, and says that his former student continues to impress.

Judge CALABRESI: She's a powerful, strong person. She's very smart. And she's changed my mind, and I'm a tough act.

SMITH: But probably not as tough as the next act in the drama of Sonia Sotomayor. The White House wants to have confirmation hearings by mid-July.

Robert Smith, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Robert Smith is a host for NPR's Planet Money where he tells stories about how the global economy is affecting our lives.