Biography.com on Sonia Sotomayor
Federal judge Sonia Sotomayor was born as the elder of two children in the South Bronx area of New York City, on June 25, 1954. Parents Juan and Celina Baez Sotomayor, who were of Puerto Rican descent, moved to New York City to raise their children. Sotomayor’s family functioned on a very modest income; her mother was a nurse at a methadone clinic, and her father was a tool-and-die worker.
Sotomayor’s first leanings toward the justice system began after watching an episode of the television show Perry Mason. When a prosecutor on the program said he did not mind losing when a defendant turned out to be innocent, Sotomayor later said to The New York Times that she “made the quantum leap: If that was the prosecutor’s job, then the guy who made the decision to dismiss the case was the judge. That was what I was going to be.”
When her husband died in 1963, Celina worked hard to raise her children as a single parent. She placed what Sotomayor would later call an “almost fanatical emphasis” on a higher education, pushing the children to become fluent in English and making huge sacrifices to purchase a set of encyclopedias that would give them proper research materials for school.
First Latina Supreme Court Justice
On May 26, 2009, President Barack Obama announced his nomination of Sotomayor for Supreme Court Justice. The nomination was confirmed by the U.S. Senate in August 2009 by a vote of 68 to 31, making Sotomayor the first Latina Supreme Court Justice in U.S. history.
In June 2015, Sotomayor made history again (twice) when she was among the majority in two landmark Supreme Court rulings. On June 25, she was one of the six justices to uphold a critical component of the 2010 Affordable Care Act—often referred to as Obamacare—in King v. Burwell. The decision allows the federal government to continue providing subsidies to Americans who purchase health care through “exchanges,” regardless of whether they are state or federally operated. Sotomayor is credited as a key force in the ruling, having presented cautionary arguments against the potential dismantling of the law. The majority ruling, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, thus further cemented the Affordable Care Act. Conservative justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Antonin Scaliawere in dissent, with Scalia presenting a scathing dissenting opinion to the Court.
On June 26, the Supreme Court handed down its second historic decision in as many days, with a 5–4 majority ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges that made same sex marriage legal in all 50 states. Sotomayor joined Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Anthony Kennedy, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan in the majority, with Roberts, Alito, Scalia and Thomas dissenting.
Utah v. Edward Joseph Strieff, Jr. Dissent
In June 2016, Sotomayor made headlines when she wrote a scathing dissent in the case of Utah v. Edward Joseph Strieff, Jr., a case involving civil liberties in regards to preventing unlawful search and seizures protected by the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment. The court ruled in its 5-3 decision “that evidence found by police officers after illegal stops may be used in court if the officers conducted their searches after learning that the defendants had outstanding arrest warrants,” according to the New York Times. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the majority opinion, which is considered a major victory for the police.
“We must not pretend that the countless people who are routinely targeted by police are “isolated.” — Sonia Sotomayor
In her dissent, Sotomayor stated, “The mere existence of a warrant not only gives an officer legal cause to arrest and search a person, it also forgives an officer who, with no knowledge of the warrant at all, unlawfully stops that person on a whim or hunch.” She continued, citing racial unrest and protests that lasted for weeks after a white officer shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri.
“The Department of Justice recently reported that in the town of Ferguson, Missouri, with a population of 21,000, 16,000 people had outstanding warrants against them,” she continued, “By legitimizing the conduct that produces this double consciousness, this case tells everyone, white and black, guilty and innocent, that an officer can verify your legal status at any time. It says that your body is subject to invasion while courts excuse the violation of your rights. It implies that you are not a citizen of a democracy but the subject of a carceral state, just waiting to be cataloged.”
The Court insisted in its opinion that this incident was isolated, but Sotomayor emphatically challenged this assertion and said this decision not only chisels away at protections under the Fourth Amendment, but also will affect minorities and low-income individuals disproportionately.