The Many Rabbis of Sonia Sotomayor

During a recruiting trip to Yale in 1979, District Attorney Robert Morgenthau ran into his friend José Alberto Cabranes in the hallway.

“You have any good students?” Mr. Morgenthau remembered asking Mr. Cabranes, a prominent Puerto Rican lawyer from New York who was then teaching at Yale and who is now a federal judge on the Second Circuit.

“I have one student who has never thought of being an assistant district attorney,” Mr. Morgenthau remembered Mr. Cabranes as saying. “But I think she’d be good. It would be good for your office and I think it would be good for her.”

It turned out to be very good for that student, Sonia Sotomayor, who on May 26, was nominated by President Barack Obama to be a Supreme Court justice of the United States. She would be the first Latino to join the nation’s highest court, and only its third woman. Mr. Obama said during the announcement at the White House that he selected the federal appeals judge in part because it was critical to have a justice know “how the world works, and how ordinary people live.”

The world and people Ms. Sotomayor knew were largely shaped by the borders of the city’s five boroughs, where she was raised by a single mother in a South Bronx housing project and, after attaining gold-plated diplomas at Princeton and Yale (where she edited the law review), she returned as a high-powered and promising lawyer who caught the attention of some of the great political powers of New York State.

For them, she has been as close to a consensus favorite as it is possible to be. While never outwardly political herself, Ms. Sotomayor was helped along in her career at every level by support from an ideologically diverse collection of giants such as Mr. Morgenthau, Ed Koch, Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Al D’Amato. Most recently, when Mr. Obama deliberated about who to choose, Chuck Schumer led the charge on Ms. Sotomayor’s behalf, with Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Representatives José Serrano and Nydia Velázquez behind him.

Mr. Morgenthau said that while many junior prosecutors in the 1980s were susceptible to aggressive tactics by high-powered defense lawyers looking for pleas in the courts, “no one pushed around Sonia Sotomayor.” He noted that she handled several high-profile cases, including the trial of the so-called Tarzan Murderer, who entered apartments by climbing down fire escapes.

“He’s doing 75 to life now,” said Mr. Morgenthau. “So ask him if he thinks she’s a liberal.”

(He actually got 67 years to life, but point taken.)

Ms. Sotomayor eventually left the district attorney’s office to go into private practice, a period during which she established a regular presence at civic and legal events, especially those concerning Puerto Ricans.

“She made the rounds,” said Representative Jose Serrano, who recalled meeting her at events sponsored by the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and ducation Fund, of which she was policy maker, or the Hispanic Bar Association.

“The first person I remember her with was Morgenthau,” said Mr. Serrano. “And that was very impressive.”

Mr. Serrano said that Ms. Sotomayor kept a decidedly nonpolitical profile, and when they did talk, it was about legal issues and the needs of the courts.

In June 1988, Ms. Sotomayor was appointed to the New York City Campaign Finance Board by Mr. Koch.

“I had a search made of the best people, and she was it,” said Mr. Koch

In 1991, David Botwinik and David Glasser, two lawyers at the Manhattan law firm Pavia & Harcourt, called their friend Judah Gribetz, the chairman of the renowned judiciary screening committee of Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan to recommend their partner, Ms. Sotomayor, for a federal appointment.

Mr. Morgenthau said that he called to offer his recommendation of Ms. Sotomayor as well to Mr. Gribetz

Asked who was responsible for her career as a federal court judge, Mr. Gribetz, who last saw Ms. Sotomayor at a friend’s son’s bar mitzvah last year, joked, “I’m the fellow that was the culprit.”

The famously rigorous Moynihan panel eventually selected Ms. Sotomayor as its top pick, requiring a private interview with the esteemed senator himself.

“Where did you find her, Judah?” Moynihan asked Mr. Gribetz at the time.

Mr. Gribetz explained that as far as he knew, “She came out of nowhere.”

“She was somebody that those two guys said, ‘You know how everybody’s talking about how the country is evolving? Here’s a gal that came out of the South Bronx and went to Princeton and Yale, was in Bob Morgenthau’s office and is at Pavia & Harcourt, a nice law firm. She has a future.’”

Joseph Gale, now a judge on the U.S. Tax Court who was Moynihan’s chief tax council at the time, knew of Ms. Sotomayor from their time together at Princeton, where she graduated summa cum laude and won the university’s Taylor Pyne Prize, the highest honor Princeton awards to an undergraduate. Mr. Gale recalled telling Moynihan, “Senator, anyone who won the Pyne Prize at Princeton is worth nominating to the bench—it’s a real mark of early achievement.”

Mr. Gale also remembered being “struck at her poise and composure” when she sat down with Moynihan, when she was only 37. “She was new to the political world and she just seemed to handle that part of it well. I don’t think she had much of a political background.”

But politics has also made Ms. Sotomayor’s career possible.    

Moynihan, a Democrat, was only able to recommend a federal judge to Republican president George H. W. Bush because of a long-standing arrangement at the time between New York senators of different parties.

According to Bill Cunningham, a former Moynihan adviser who now works at Dan Klores Communications, Moynihan and the late Republican Senator Jacob Javits decided on a bipartisan approach to selecting judicial candidates in which the state’s two senators, if they belonged to different parties, would share the recommendations, with the senator of the same party as the president selecting three out of the four federal judge appointees, and the senator from the other party recommending one. 

When Moynihan and Republican Senator Al D’Amato represented the state, that arrangement stood, allowing Moynihan to recommend Ms. Sotomayor while a Republican controlled the White House.

“We had this agreement, and when she came to meet with me and I checked with my committee, they agreed that she was outstanding,” said Mr. D’Amato. 

Mr. D’Amato said the Bush Justice Department opposed the recommendation, but Mr. D’Amato said he intervened.

“I had a pretty good relationship with them and I said, ‘We have this agreement and we were going to honor it.’ They didn’t like but they took it.”

Mr. D’Amato said that at that point, and again in 1998, when his Republican colleagues sought to hold up her nomination to the appeals court, partially on the grounds that she was a potential Supreme Court contender, Mr. D’Amato argued on her behalf, saying hers was “not a record of some left-wing ideologue—it is a record of individual rights that she stands up for. This is someone of balance”

Likewise, in getting the Supreme Court nomination, Ms. Sotomayor received a good deal of help from key members of the New York delegation, chief among them Senator Chuck Schumer. Other than him, the key lobbyists for Ms. Sotomayor in New York were Ms. Gillibrand, Ms. Velázquez  and Mr. Serrano. They wrote open letters to Mr. Obama but, according to several sources, also made several overtures in private to Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and Patrick Gaspard, the Obama administration’s director of the office of political affairs.

“I did speak to her about a month ago,” said Ms. Gillibrand, referring to Ms. Sotomayor. “She called me to thank me for my letter to the president. I had not known her before that. I just think her qualifications are outstanding, and I think she will bring just an enormous talent to the bench.”

Ms. Gillibrand said that at several meetings with Latino officials, people said, “‘Kirsten, if you do anything for us, advocate for this justice. She is going to be the best ever.’ And so Senator Schumer and I have been advocating for Sotomayor for months now.’” 

“We were leaving no stone unturned,” said Mr. Serrano, who said that he personally, at the behest of Ms. Velázquez, addressed the Congressional Hispanic Caucus earlier this month. His argument to them was that Puerto Ricans didn’t have the business power of the Cuban community or the sheer demographic strength of the Mexican community, but they had Sonia Sotomayor.

“Maybe this is our turn,” Mr. Serrano said he told them.

Mr. Serrano received a call at 8:15 a.m. on the 26th from a friend in the White House informing him of Ms. Sotomayor’s selection. Later in the day, Mr. Schumer called to congratulate him. Mr. Serrano congratulated him back and thanked him for his support. (Mr. Serrano said he had not received a call from Ms. Gillibrand, whom he has threatened to challenge in a Senate primary.)

With a nearly filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, and the support of Republicans like Orrin Hatch, Ms. Sotomayor’s boosters are highly confident that she’s going to come out on top, again.

“She will be confirmed overwhelmingly,” Mr. D’Amato said.

The Many Rabbis of Sonia Sotomayor