More about Sonia Sotomayor ’76
Our brief look at the Supreme Court nominee’s appearances in the Princeton Alumni Weekly includes a story from the July 15, 2009, issue, additional comments from alumni who knew her well at Princeton, and three pieces from the archives: the 1976 Pyne Prize announcement, a 1995 profile, and the 2001 presentation of Sotomayor’s honorary degree.
(Photo: Office of Communications, Princeton University)
Sotomayor ’76 recalled as activist for Latino causes at Princeton (PAW, July 15, 2009)
Federal appeals court judge Sonia Sotomayor ’76, nominated May 26 for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, excelled academically at Princeton while advocating to increase the number of Latino faculty and students.
She graduated summa cum laude as a history major, was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa, and was a co-winner of the Pyne Prize. Her thesis dealt with modern Puerto Rican history.
William G. Bowen *58, who became Princeton’s president the year Sotomayor arrived at the University, told The New Yorker that he remembered her as “remarkably mature” and that she “worked very purposefully, but always constructively, to take a good place and make it better.”
Sotomayor was a founder of the Latino Student Organization and a member of the Third World Center’s governing board, and helped organize Latino students as volunteers to provide Spanish-speaking skills at Trenton Psychiatric Hospital. She became co-chairwoman of a student group called Acción Puertorriquena, and was among a group of Puerto Rican and Chicano students who filed a 1974 complaint with the Department of Health, Education and Welfare charging the University with “an institutional pattern of discrimination.”
In videotaped remarks from an early 1990s conference on women in the judiciary, Sotomayor described herself as “a product of affirmative action … My test scores were not comparable to my colleagues at Princeton and Yale [where she went to law school and was editor of the law journal]. Not so far off so that I wasn’t able to succeed at those institutions.” She told the New York Daily News that Princeton was the “single most growing event of my life.”
Sergio Sotolongo ’77, who knew Sotomayor both in high school and at Princeton, described her as a “deep thinker, extremely focused” and added: “Clearly, she identified herself as a Latina and was active on a number of political issues on campus.” She would be “a terrific justice,” he said.
The daughter of parents from Puerto Rico, Sotomayor grew up in the Bronx, N.Y. She was nominated as a federal judge in 1991, and in 1997 was nominated for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. She was awarded an honorary doctor of laws degree from Princeton in 2001 for her “wisdom and judgment that cross cultural boundaries.” She became a University trustee in 2007.
If confirmed to succeed Justice David Souter, she would become the first Hispanic justice and the third woman to serve on the Supreme Court. She would become the second Princeton graduate on the current court and the 11th overall. Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. ’72 joined the court Jan. 31, 2006. By W. Raymond Ollwerther ’71
Recalling Sotomayor ’76 at Princeton (PAW online, July 15, 2009)
PAW invited two alumni who knew Sonia Sotomayor ’76 well during their years at Princeton to write about their experiences working with her and to comment on media portrayals of her since her nomination to the Supreme Court. Here are their responses.
Sergio Sotolongo ’77:
We attended the same high school, Cardinal Spellman High School, located in the Bronx. Sonia was one year ahead of me. While in high school, we participated on the debate and public speaking team as well as the student government. Sonia also was instrumental in my decision to attend Princeton, as we spoke about the relative merits of the school and I drew on her experiences as a freshman in guiding my decision to attend Princeton. While at Princeton we spoke frequently on a number of issues, including course work, professors, current political issues, etc. We were both members of the Third World Center.
Sonia is extremely focused and was very studious. She would spend a fair amount of time in Firestone. At the same time, she possesses a strong sense of herself and a pleasant disposition. Clearly, she identified herself as a Latina and was active on a number of political issues on campus. I would also describe her as a person who is a deep thinker and analyzes various parts of a problem before reacting.
There are a number of people who don’t know Sonia and would not want her named to the Supreme Court. In my estimation, she would make a terrific justice. I would offer the following reasons:
- She has a stellar resume and has proved that she possess the intellectual capacity to excel.
- She possesses more experience as an appellate judge than other justices in the current court.
- As an appellate judge, she has had fewer decisions overturned by the Supreme Court as compared with the current court.
Clearly, her appointment would be historic, and she would serve the country well.
Joseph B. Schubert ’74:
Recent contacts have been limited, but when we overlapped at Princeton, our contact was frequent — similar circles of friends, academic interests, and goals. My closest friend at Princeton was Margarita Rosa ’74, one of the first Puerto Rican women at Princeton, who also became a lawyer in New York City and remains a close friend of Sonia’s and mine.
At Princeton, Sonia was at first seemingly meek, quiet, and brainy. All of us knew early on that she was driven. Part of the drive stemmed from a need to prove that she was equal to those from privileged backgrounds. Sonia could not only “keep up,” she beat them at their own game by excelling beyond students of all backgrounds. I’ll never forget how proud we felt when we were invited back to Princeton to witness the conferring of the Pyne Prize — vindicating the hopes of all of us with similar backgrounds who knew we were just as talented and could, if given the chance, become leaders of the next generation.
Yet Sonia’s was a compassionate and sensitive ambition. I never saw her take advantage of a person or a situation to advance herself personally at the expense of the particular cause she was advocating. No one knew that she was working on the HEW complaint, for example, until it was polished to her high standards. Then she set out to convince the rest of us of its merits. Many students felt a complaint with an outside party was the wrong tactic at the wrong time. But Sonia slowly convinced other student leaders — it would be a visible and political statement, and would enable us to gain some political leverage in bargaining with the administration. The skeptics were dead wrong. Not only were there immediate results — a student-initiated seminar on Puerto Rican history and intensified efforts to recruit Latino faculty and administrators, for example — but the long-term results are still being felt today. Now it is a given that Princeton has Latino role models at all levels of faculty, administration, and student body. In addition to reflecting the country’s own diversity, Princeton has gained valuable recruiting tools and is a more hospitable place for what will soon be the nation’s largest minority group.
Sonia could easily have tried to “blend in” at Princeton as many minority students do today, but for her that was never an option. As one of the first Puerto Rican women at Princeton and Yale Law School, she never forgot her roots or her community and always turned that unique perspective into an asset. She knew she would be a role model as a “first” in many fields and that she had to be deliberative and careful in what would be a highly public life. Yet she never trumpeted her successes, even those that brought about significant change at Princeton and the larger community.
I saw her in New York two weeks ago and the years haven’t changed her — her first words were to inquire about my partner’s recent death and wishing that she could have reached out more when he died. She remains as I fondly remember her — a warm, generous-hearted, and idealistic person — qualities that will be an asset to the nation as she serves on its highest court.
How that reaction compares with the ways she has been portrayed since her nomination:
I’ll briefly address three – Sonia is a radical, Sonia is outside the mainstream, and she is not “brainy” enough.
The notion of Sonia as a wild-eyed radical with an “activist” agenda is laughable. Radicals were certainly at Princeton — those who bombed ROTC and IDA, those who engaged in violent protests, those who disrupted conferences and took over buildings. She and most others were too practical to use such tactics and, frankly, knew they would produce backlash. She and others knew that the changes she sought had to be incremental and permanent, and pressure could be just as effective if it was planned, rational, and consensus-building. Thoughtful commentators who have reviewed her 17 years of judicial decisions have been unable to establish a hard-right or hard-left agenda.
Sonia is solidly within the mainstream, and particularly the American mainstream of the 21st century. The next 20 years will see a majority-minority nation, based on demographic projections. How can a nation govern itself effectively if its leaders don’t reflect its population? The right-wing fringe is using its tiresome weapon, fear, to try to hold back the tide, including using grossly exaggerated rhetoric from her speeches and pointing to her membership in civil-rights advocacy organizations. Americans, particularly Latinos, know the truth. The speeches and her memberships place her solidly in the middle of the current American populace, and, if anything, on the cautious, deliberative, and careful side of the Latino spectrum. We have too much to lose were that not the case.
Sonia isn’t brainy enough? The only record that matters on this score is her 17 years of judicial opinions. One legal colleague who went to law school in New York said that there were only two judges on the Second Circuit he studied whom he could count on to have cogent, well-reasoned opinions that were widely respected — those of Sonia and Kimba Wood.
Summa cum laude and Pyne Prize at Princeton, editor of the Yale Law Journal, appointed and confirmed twice to the federal bench by a skeptical and at times hostile Congress — if those don’t constitute intellectual gravitas in America today, and if any of these concerns prevent her confirmation, then the nation has much greater problems than ideology or race. It has problems with its soul.
Alumni Day: Awards Presentations (PAW, March 8, 1976)
The highlight of the luncheon was the presentation of the university’s four top alumni and undergraduate awards. This year’s Woodrow Wilson Prize went to George F. Kennan ’25. The James Madison Medal, honoring an outstanding alumnus of the Graduate School, was given to Gen. Andrew J. Goodpaster *50, the former Supreme Commander of NATO and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who has served
every president since Eisenhower. Goodpaster holds three degrees from Princeton: a M.S. in engineering, a M.A. in politics, and a Ph.D. in international relations. …
The M. Taylor Pyne Honor Prize, the university’s highest undergraduate award, was divided between Sonia Maria Sotomayor ’76 of the Bronx, New York, and J. David Germany ’76 of Mansfield, Ohio. Sotomayor, a history major who has earned almost all A’s her last two years, has been particularly active in improving the quality of campus life for minority students. She has served on the student-faculty Discipline Committee, on the governing board of the Third World Center, and as a founder of the Latino Student Organization. In accepting the prize, she said:
“The people I represent are diverse in their opinions, cultures, and experiences. However, we are united by a common bond. We are attempting to exist distinctly within the rich Princeton tradition without the tension of having our identities constantly challenged and without the frustrations of isolation. . . . The challenge to both myself and to Princeton is to go beyond simple recognition. I hope today also marks the beginning of a new era for all of us — a new era in which Princeton’s traditions can be further enriched by being broadened to accommodate and harmonize with the beat of those of us who march to different drummers.”
Germany, who has earned 21 A+’s and 9 A’s at Princeton, has had the unusual distinction of being enlisted by the economics department to teach in one of its upperclass courses. He has also served as editor-in-chief of the Nassau Herald, co-director of the Campus Fund Drive, and as the Undergraduate Parking Administrator — adjudicating appeals of campus parking violations. He is active in intramural athletics and spent parts of his summers backpacking in the High Sierras. In his acceptance speech, he remarked:
“The Princeton I have experienced is a direct reflection of the interests and concerns of her alumni, and if I have done well here, it is because of the environment I have so enjoyed. . . . No matter what your interests are, there always seems to be somebody who is willing to guide you along in your work. . . and this flexibility is the means by which people as different in background and goals as Sonia and myself can simultaneously find Princeton rewarding.”
Sonia Sotomayor ’76 rescues America’s pastime (PAW, May 10, 1995)
Talk about Princeton in the nation’s service. On March 31st, Sonia Sotomayor ’76, a federal judge on the United States District Court in Manhattan, issued an injunction against the owners of major-league baseball teams, enjoining them from unilaterally imposing contract terms to govern the 1995 baseball season. Thanks to this ruling, the players ended their strike, the owners accepted the players’ offer to return to work, and “America’s pastime” is underway again, after a painful, 234-day hiatus.
Sotomayor’s commitment to community and public service stretches further than the national pastime. In an interview with Princeton Today this winter, Sotomayor credited Princeton with stimulating her interest in public service. “At Princeton. . . the size of the institution makes it possible to really get involved,” she said. “You’re paid attention to at Princeton, and you have a sense of having a positive impact.”
[Sotomayor, who has been inundated with requests for interviews since the baseball decision, said that as much as she loves Princeton, in fairness to the many other requests she has had for interviews, she would have to decline PAW's request as well.]
Sotomayor, the Southern District of New York’s youngest judge (she is forty) and the first who is an American of Puerto Rican descent, grew up in a Bronx housing project and went to local Catholic schools. Her parents were from Puerto Rico — her father, who spoke only Spanish, died when she was nine. Sotomayor has said her mother “had almost a fanatical emphasis on education.”
At Princeton, she majored in history and received nearly all A’s in her last two years. Her academic achievement was equaled by her efforts on behalf of minority students. She was a founder of the Latino Student Organization and sat on the Third World Center’s governing board. She also organized Latino students as volunteers at the Trenton Psychiatric Hospital to provide needed Spanish-speaking skills, and served on the student-faculty discipline committee. “Invovement in my community is a very important ingredient in my life,” she told Princeton Today.
In her senior year, Sotomayor was a cowinner (with classmate J. David Germany) of the M. Taylor Pyne Honor Prize, Princeton’s highest undergraduate award. At the award ceremony on Alumni Day, she spoke about minority students at Princeton, who she noted are diverse in their opinions, cultures, and experiences, but are united by the common bond of the university.
“We are attempting to exist distinctly within the rich Princeton tradition, without the tension of having our identities constantly challenged and without the frustrations of isolation,” she said. “The challenge to both myself and to Princeton is to go beyond simple recognition. I hope today also marks the beginning of a new era for all of us — a new era in which Princeton’s traditions can be further enriched by being broadened to accommodate and harmonize with the beat of those of us who march to different drummers.”
After Princeton came Yale Law School, where she edited the Yale Law Journal. According to the Washington Post, during Sotomayor’s third year, a partner at a large Washington, D.C., law firm asked her some discriminatory questions, and she filed a formal complaint. The firm subsequently issued an apology.
After law school, she worked for five years as an assistant district attorney in the office of Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau. In 1984, she joined Pavia & Harcourt, where she specialized in commercial litigation, counting among her clients Ferrari and Fendi. She was made a partner in 1988.
Sotomayor also continued her community activities with pro bono work. From 1980 to 1992, she served on the board of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund. She was appointed by the mayor as a founding member of the New York City Campaign Public Finance Board, which distributes public money for municipal election campaigns. She also sat on the board of the State of New York Mortgage Agency, which helps provide mortgage-insurance coverage to low-income housing and AIDS hospices.
U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan recommended Sotomayor to President Bush for appointment to a judgeship on the Manhattan district court, and on October 2nd, 1992, she was sworn in. A week before the ceremony, Sotomayor told The New York Times what she expected to see on the bench: “95 percent of the cases before most judges are fairly mundane. The cases that shake the world don’t come along every day.”
Yet, when the fate of America’s game arrived in her courtroom, Sotomayor handled it with aplomb. In a typically down-to-earth opening remark, she said, “I hope that none of you assumed that my lack of knowledge of any of the intimate details of your dispute meant that I was not a baseball fan. You can’t grow up in the South Bronx without knowing about baseball.”
– Robin L. Michaelson ’89
Honorary Degree Recipients (PAW, July 4, 2001)
Kevin Gover ’78, Doctor of Laws
Attorney specializing in federal law relating to Indians and Indian tribal law
As an undergraduate, Gover marched on campus with placards drawing attention to the plight of the American Indian. Later, as assistant secretary for Indian Affairs in the Department of the Interior, he oversaw the operations of the bureau’s programs, including those related to recognition, trust assets, self-determination, water rights, tribal courts, and education.
Shelton Jackson “Spike” Lee, Doctor of Fine Arts
Filmmaker, actor, and writer
Lee’s films have been praised for intelligently and sensitively capturing relationships in American society, among African Americans and between African Americans and whites. His work shows that silence about racial or personal differences is divisive, and that communication, even about painful issues, can build a united nation.
Aaron Lemonick *54, Doctor of Science
Professor of physics, emeritus, Princeton University
In 1961, Lemonick came to Princeton as an associate professor in physics and as associate director of the Princeton-Pennsylvania Accelerator. He became dean of the Graduate School in 1969, and in 1973 he was named dean of the faculty, a position he held until 1989. He is a winner of the President’s Distinguished Teaching Award. More recently, he has helped local elementary school teachers develop creative methods to teach science.
Jane Lubchenco, Doctor of Science
Environmental scientist and marine ecologist, Oregon State University
Lubchenco has gained an international reputation for her efforts to increase understanding of the natural dynamics of the Earth’s ecosystems. Called a visionary leader in the international scientific community, she has been one of the most influential voices for science and science policy in our nation and the world.
William Felton Russell, Doctor of Humanities
Former professional basketball player and a member of the board of the National Mentoring Partnership
As a basketball star for the Boston Celtics, Russell revolutionized the role of defense in basketball. Elected an NBA All-Star 11 times, five-time winner of the Most Valuable Player Award, he has also gained recognition for his successful efforts to break racial barriers in sports and win equality for African Americans. He was the first African American to coach a major league professional team.
Courtland D. Perkins, Doctor of Science
Professor of aerospace and mechanical engineering, emeritus, Princeton University
Perkins joined the faculty in 1945 to head up a fledgling program in flight test engineering and stayed until he retired in 1978. His pioneering text on aircraft stability and control laid the groundwork for scientifically testing the limits of flight in air and space. As engineer, teacher, administrator, and adviser, he has inspired students who have advanced the frontiers of knowledge, captained the aerospace industry, and planted Princeton’s flag on the moon.
Sonia Sotomayor ’76, Doctor of Laws
Judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit
In 1992, after a decade as an attorney, Sotomayor was appointed district judge for the Southern District of New York. In 1998 she moved to the U.S. Court of Appeals. Her decisions include a 1995 injunction that ended an impasse between baseball owners and players, a reinterpretation of copyright law in the context of new media, and rulings in favor of public access to private information and in defense of religious freedom.