A Bronx Tale

Much has been made of Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s biography and personal narrative. She would be, after all, the first Latina on the U.S. Supreme Court, and only the third woman to serve as an associate justice. But let’s not forget another important piece of her identity: She is a New Yorker, through and through.

Judge Sotomayor’s journey from the Bronxdale Houses to the top of the nation’s legal system is an extraordinary story, encompassing narratives of gender, identity and ethnicity. The judge’s childhood was spent in a borough, the Bronx, that became a symbol of urban decay and neglect as she was coming of age. Her parents, natives of Puerto Rico, struggled to provide her with opportunities they didn’t have. When young Sonia’s father died when she was 9 years old, her mother put in long hours as a nurse to pay the bills and provide for her young family.

The future judge was educated in Catholic schools, including Cardinal Spellman High School, a beacon of hope and nurturer of dreams in the Bronx. The education she received at Spellman prepared her for Princeton University, where she graduated summa cum laude, and Yale Law School. Catholic education in New York has fallen on hard times, but Judge Sotomayor’s story ought to remind us that parochial schools have inspired tens of thousands of New Yorkers to think, and to dream.

The judge served an apprenticeship in the office of Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau before going into private practice. She got a taste of New York politics through her work on the city’s Campaign Finance Board, which oversees the city’s system of publicly funded municipal campaigns. The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan—who predicted she would eventually serve on the Supreme Court—recommended her for a federal judgeship in 1991, and she won appointment to the U.S. Court of Appeals in 1998.

She has been, then, a constant presence in New York from her earliest days, and has had a chance to work with some of the city’s legendary political leaders. Her intellect and her personal toughness mark her as a New Yorker—and as a potentially formidable figure on the court.

If confirmed, she will join another New York woman, Ruth Bader Ginsburg—who, perhaps not coincidentally, also found a champion and supporter in Senator Moynihan. Let it be noted that the late senator, gone for more than six years now, continues to influence our politics and the way we think about ourselves and our country.

Those who were quick to find fault with Judge Sotomayor’s background and intellect will soon realize they’ve made a tremendous mistake. While she certainly will have to be politic during her upcoming hearings, Judge Sotomayor is more than capable of making critics like Newt Gingrich look very foolish indeed.

New York has good reason to be proud of this daughter of the Bronx. Her critics ought to be a little more wary about their accusations and complaints. She is, after all, a New Yorker. She knows how to handle herself.