Meet the Sotomayors

Article excerpt

Byline: Evan Thomas, Stuart Taylor Jr., And Brian No

One is a Latina firebrand, the other a model of judicial restraint. It's the latter who will appear before the senate judiciary committee. But it's the former, conservative critics fear, who will sit on the highest court in the land. Will the real Sonia Sotomayor please stand up?

In the press portraits written since Barack Obama named her to the Supreme Court in May, two Sonia Sotomayors have emerged. One is the fiery Latina activist who formally complained to the federal government about her university's alleged ethnic bias; who sat on the board of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund when it accused New York City of discrimination in hiring and voting rights; who sometimes suggested that judicial opinions should reflect the gender and ethnic backgrounds of the judges who write them; who asserted that "a wise Latina woman" was likely to reach a better decision than "a white male." The other is the federal court of appeals judge who writes careful, narrowly reasoned opinions that are unexciting but unalarming, that rarely stray from the mainstream.

This week, at her confirmation hearings, the Senate Judiciary Committee will be eager to find out which Justice Sotomayor will show up at the Supreme Court on the traditional first Monday in October that begins the court's year. There is no way the senators will be able to know for sure. Sotomayor's judicial record reveals little. Judges on the federal courts of appeals are supposed to stick to the law and to obey precedent. Supreme Court justices, on the other hand, have a freer hand. While they are supposed to respect the slow evolution of the law, they have more discretion than lower-court judges to express personal views, to vote their consciences, to make the law fit what Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. called "the felt necessities of the time."

At her confirmation hearings, Sotomayor is not likely to tip her hand. Her testimony will be carefully considered and undoubtedly guarded. But it is possible to look at the experience that she says did more than any other to shape her--her undergraduate years at Princeton--and get a sense of how her mind works and how she approaches problems. The portrait that emerges is of a shrewd politician who wants to change the system by working within it.

"My days at Princeton -- were the single most transforming experience I have had. It was here that I became truly aware of my Latina identity--something I had taken for granted during my childhood when I was surrounded by my family and their friends," Sotomayor said in a speech to the Third World Center at Princeton in 1996. Her sentiment is not unusual among minorities at the school, which has the most Southern and conservative heritage in the Ivy League. Michelle Obama, who attended Princeton in the early '80s, wrote in her senior thesis that she had never felt more aware of her "blackness" than when she was a student at the university. Although Princeton has become quite diverse, many nonwhite students still say they feel a heightened sense of racial identity.

Princeton transformed Sotomayor in another way that she did not mention in her speech. It taught her how to play a particular sort of power game, to get ahead the Princeton way--not by assertion or bullying, but by reason and carefully prepared persuasion. These are values that Princeton has long taught and still tries to teach. Change is to be achieved by working within the system, not by tearing things down.

When Sotomayor arrived in the fall of 1972, she recalled in her 1996 speech, Prince-ton was "an alien land for me." She was a member of only the fourth class to take women. There were very few blacks or Hispanics. It seemed to Sotomayor that the other students had all gone to prep school and taken tennis lessons and enjoyed ski vacations. In the summer after her freshman year, she read the children's and adolescents' classics she had missed but that seemed familiar to all the prep-school students--Alice in Wonderland, Huckleberry Finn, and the novels of Jane Austen. …