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N.Y. judge rises from projects to the U.S. Supreme Court

Associated Press | 5/27/2009, 6:19 a.m.
President Barack Obama announces federal appeals court judge Sonia Sotomayor (right) as his nominee for the U.S. Supreme...
President Barack Obama announces federal appeals court judge Sonia Sotomayor (right) as his nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court during a ceremony held on Tuesday, May 26, 2009, in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C. If confirmed, Sotomayor would become the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice. AP /Pablo Martinez Monsivais

NEW YORK — Sonia Sotomayor’s path to the pinnacle of the legal profession began in the 1960s at a Bronx housing project just a couple of blocks from Yankee Stadium, where she and her family dealt with one struggle after another.

She suffered juvenile diabetes that forced her to start insulin injections at age 8. Her father died the next year, leaving her to be raised by her mother — a nurse at a methadone clinic who always kept a pot of rice and beans on the stove. The parents had moved to the U.S. from Puerto Rico.

Sotomayor immersed herself in Nancy Drew books and spent hours watching “Perry Mason” on television, and knew she wanted to be a judge by the age of 10 after being inspired by an episode of the show that ended with the camera settling on the robed sage.

“I realized that the judge was the most important player in that room,” Sotomayor said in a 1998 interview with The Associated Press.

Now, Sotomayor is one of the most important players in the nation after being nominated for a Supreme Court seat by President Barack Obama. It is the crowning accomplishment in a career that has included a long list of achievements: Yale Law School; a stint as a prosecutor and at a Manhattan law firm; a key ruling in 1995 that brought Major League Baseball back to the nation after a strike; and most recently a job as a federal appeals judge.

The Manhattan-born Sotomayor’s humble upbringing has shaped her personality — vibrant and colorful, and so different from the Bronx projects where she grew up in a working-class existence in a home with a drab yellow kitchen. She is a food-loving baseball buff as likely to eat a hot dog at a street corner stand as she is to sit down for a lengthy meal at a swanky Manhattan restaurant.

Her work and everything else in her life are sure to face close scrutiny in the months ahead in a process Sotomayor is all too familiar with. Her nomination to the appeals court was delayed 15 months, reportedly because of concerns by Republicans that she might someday be considered for the Supreme Court.

“I don’t think anybody looked at me as a woman or as a Hispanic and said, ‘We’re not going to appoint her because of those characteristics,’” she recalled in the 1998 interview. “Clearly that’s not what occurred.

“But I do believe there are gender and ethnic stereotypes that propel people to assumptions about what they expected me to be,” she continued. “I obviously felt that any balanced view of my work would not support some of the allegations being made.”

Her baseball ruling in 1995 was among the most important moments of her career. Because of her position on the bench in New York, she was put in the position to essentially decide the future of the sport she so loved.

Acknowledging the pivotal moment, Sotomayor described how it is “when you see an outfielder backpedaling and jumping up to the wall, and time stops for an instant as he jumps up and you finally figure out whether it’s a home run, a double or a single off the wall or an out.”