Sonia Sotomayor: A Justice Like No Other

In Sonia Sotomayor, Obama makes a historic choice for the court. What her extraordinary life says about the kind of Justice she would be

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Brooks Kraft / Corbis for Time

The President with Sotomayor, the first Hispanic female to be nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Barack Obama said he wanted a Supreme Court nominee with a "common touch." With Sonia Sotomayor, he got somebody with a common touch and an uncommon story. Nobody expects you to be chosen someday for the Supreme Court when your father was a welder with a third-grade education. Nobody expects you to make it to Princeton when you come from a public-housing project.

But barring a big surprise, most people expect Sotomayor to be on the court when it opens its next term in October. The Democrats already have 59 votes in the Senate. And Sotomayor isn't a barn-burning leftist. She tends to write narrowly crafted rulings that focus on close application of the law. She resists rhetorical flourishes and sweeping philosophical statements. Altogether, she's a liberal jurist who will be replacing another mostly liberal vote on the court, David Souter, which means her arrival there won't do much to change the ideological balance.

If anything, Sotomayor may disappoint activists on the left who were hoping that Obama would choose a two-fisted progressive to trade punches with Justice Antonin Scalia, who anchors the conservative end of the court. There are episodes in her history as a judge that Republicans will scrutinize carefully, especially an affirmative-action decision that the Supreme Court is re-examining right now. But absent a time bomb hidden among her rulings and public statements, there's not much Sotomayor's opponents can do to turn her into a scary radical--or to counter that compelling personal story.

On May 21, when he met her for the first time, Obama, a former law professor, engaged Sotomayor in a lengthy discussion about the court and the Constitution. "What the President told us," an Obama senior adviser said later, "was that he was very struck by her discussion of her approach to judging, how effective she has been in working with her colleagues on the Second Circuit, including colleagues appointed by Republican Presidents, and how her judicial craftsmanship and precision in the law can be effective in bridging ideological differences and producing consensus opinions."

A Bronx Tale

But as Obama said when he introduced Sotomayor at the White House on Tuesday, he was also drawn to her by her "extraordinary journey" in life. It could be said to have begun with a journey her parents made during World War II, when they moved from Puerto Rico to New York City, where their daughter was born in 1954. Sotomayor was 3 when the family found an apartment at the Bronxdale Houses, a city-owned development built to provide affordable housing to working-class families. Her father died when Sotomayor was just 9--one year after she was given a diagnosis of Type 1 diabetes, which still requires her to monitor her blood sugar and inject herself regularly with insulin. After that, her mother Celina raised Sotomayor and her younger brother Juan on a nurse's salary but still managed to send them to Catholic schools that prepared them for bigger things. Today Juan is a doctor. His sister, who spent a lot of time as a kid watching Perry Mason on television, had other plans.

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