Sonia Sotomayor’s Personal History: Why It Matters

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There has been much made of Sonia Sotomayor’s life, her Puerto Rican background, her modest, if not poor, childhood, her mother, what her Latina-ness means to her, obama_and_sotomayorher involvement in civil rights organizations, etc.   It’s both a big part of why Obama picked her to serve on the Supreme Court and will form the basis of the attacks launched against her – it already has.   Rush Limbaugh has likened Sonia Sotomayor to David Duke, a leader of the Ku Klux Klan.

Much can be said about how these attacks/critiques are disingenuous, mean, racist, sexist and offensive.     Of course each of us is informed by our past, our experiences, the advantages and disadvantages that we have experienced.   It’s just that you notice how the disadvantages more than the advantages shape who you are.

But for the moment I’ll leave to others such as my colleague Patricia Williams to address this aspect of the opposition to Sotomayor’s nomination.   Instead I want to focus on what her life history – including but not reduced to her nomination to the Supreme Court – has meant for Latina law students.

One of the things I enjoy most about teaching at Columbia Law School is the diversity of students we have.   Our JD students come from everywhere, and have every possible background.   Many of them see themselves mirrored in the faculty and on the federal judiciary, but a good number of them don’t.     Those who don’t know they don’t, and it often takes a leap of faith or just dogged perseverence for them to feel like they belong at a place like Columbia and that they might one day be in the front of the room teaching or up on the bench judging.     Sonia Sotomayor is fully aware of the burden she carries as a role model for female students, Latina/o students, and students who didn’t come from privileged backgrounds.   We’ve talked about this over dinner.

In this regard, what follows is a letter written by a former Columbia Law Student (with her permission) to Judge Sotomayor after her nomination to the Supreme Court was announced.   Judge Sotomayor has taught a course at Columbia on Federal Court advocacy for a number of years, which students have loved, and she was the speaker at the Columbia Law School graduation in 2004.   This student copied us on the letter she sent to Judge Sotomayor:

Dear Hon. Sonia Sotomayor:

Here I sit watching you stand proudly next to President Obama as he announces your nomination to the Supreme Court and I am so incredibly proud and happy for you and your family (especially your mom!).   God bless you and keep you always.

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Katherine Franke, from Gender and Sexuality Law Blog

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