High court pick gets mixed reactions from lawyers

WASHINGTON — Judge Sonia Sotomayor has an up-by-the-bootstraps background, an elite education and a mixed reputation among the lawyers who appear before her.

The 54-year-old New York native, a graduate of Princeton and Yale Law School, is considered brilliant by some and combative by others. Her decisions over nearly 17 years as a federal judge define her as an unabashed liberal, more evidently so than the Supreme Court justice she now hopes to replace.

"President Obama said he wanted a justice with 'towering intellect' and a 'common touch,' and he found both in Judge Sotomayor," said Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women.

Raised largely by her mother in a Bronx housing project after her father died when she was 9, Sotomayor's life story is a compelling one of upward achievement, even as her legal rulings will subject her to strict scrutiny from conservatives.

Avid baseball fans may recall Sotomayor from 1995, when she blocked team owners from using replacement players, thereby helping to end a 232-day strike.

The Supreme Court is reviewing a controversial ruling by Sotomayor and her 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals colleagues, who upheld the decision by New Haven, Conn., not to promote white firefighters because black candidates hadn't qualified. The high court's conservative majority overturned two appellate decisions that Sotomayor wrote.

Approved twice by Senate

Sotomayor has cleared Senate hurdles twice before, as a district court nominee in 1992 and as a nominee to the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in 1998. A former New York prosecutor, she secured her first judicial nomination through a Republican president, George H.W. Bush.

By the time President Bill Clinton promoted Sotomayor to the appeals court, however, she was drawing fire from the right. Her 67-29 confirmation vote in 1998 came only after Republicans, who even then considered her a Supreme Court prospect, imposed a lengthy procedural delay.

"Judge Sotomayor was being held up on the Republican side of the aisle because of speculation that she might one day be considered ... for nomination to the United States Supreme Court," Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said at the time. He's now the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Since Sotomayor joined the New York-based 2nd Circuit, a study by Akin Gump lawyers found, she's written more than 150 opinions on issues ranging from free speech to race, sex and age discrimination.

As with every other federal judge, the attorneys who appear before Sotomayor have evaluated her regularly. Compiled in the well-respected Almanac of the Federal Judiciary, Sotomayor's evaluations run a wide gamut. Many are positive.

"She is extremely hardworking and always prepared," one attorney wrote. Another called her "a very good writer," and a third said she was "frighteningly smart (and) intellectually tough."

Sotomayor also has her share of detractors, however.

"She is temperamental and excitable; she seems angry," one attorney complained. Another called her "overly aggressive, not very judicial," and a third said she was "nasty to lawyers."

Lauren Goldman, an appellate practice partner with the firm Mayer Brown, said Sotomayor impressed her when Goldman argued a business case before the 2nd Circuit. "She is a very active questioner, and she wants to get to the bottom of things," Goldman said Tuesday.

Bee Washington Bureau reporter Michael Doyle can be reached at or 202-383-0006.