Portrait of Sotomayor as a Young Prosecutor: Smoking and Talking


So what was role model and new Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor like back in the early 1980s when she was an assistant D.A. in Manhattan battling crime?

Well, for one thing, according to a November, 1983 New York Times magazine story titled “The D.A.’s Right Arms,” Sotomayor, then in her fifth year as a prosecutor, was “an imposing woman of 29 who smokes cigarettes incessantly, [and] speaks deliberately” when describing “how she has coped with the job.”

Even then, Sotomayor’s inspiring South Bronx-projects-to-Princeton-story was drawing admirers, and she was one of those singled out for an in-depth article about assistant prosecutors working under D.A. Robert Morgenthau by writer Jonathan Barzilay. The story depicts the judge-to-be as a young liberal who was “outraged” by violent crime but still pondering what produced such criminals in the first place. Sotomayor told Barzilay that her decision to go to work for the D.A. had puzzled some of her presumably radical friends from law school at Yale…

”There was a tremendous amount of pressure from my community, from the third-world community, at Yale,” she recalls. ”They could not understand why I was taking this job. I’m not sure I’ve ever resolved that problem.

”What I am finding, both statistically and emotionally,” she continues, ”is that the worst victims of crimes are not general society – i.e., white folks – but minorities themselves. The violence, the sorrow are perpetrated by minorities on minorities.”

Sotomayor told the Times that when she was first assigned to low-level crimes like shoplifting, prostitution, and minor assault cases, she questioned her prosecutorial mission. But things came into focus when she graduated to bigger cases:

”Once I started doing felonies, it became less hard. No matter how liberal I am, I’m still outraged by crimes of violence. Regardless of whether I can sympathize with the causes that lead these individuals to do these crimes, the effects are outrageous.”

She added that ”It pains me. . .when I meet particularly bright defendants – and I’ve met quite a few of them – people who, if they had had the right guidance, the right education, the right breaks, could have been contributing members of our society. When they get convicted, there’s a satisfaction, because they’re doing things that are dangerous. But there are also nights when I sit back and say, ‘My God, what a waste!’ ”

The Times morgue also yields this nugget from a few years earlier when Sotomayor was attending Princeton as an undergraduate student and was a leader of an activist group of Puerto Rican students, Accion Puertorriqena that’s still active on campus. At the time, the group was critical of college administrators for not recruiting Ruerto Rican and Chicano faculty, students, and administrators.

Sotomayor, who was then not even 20 years old yet, is quoted thusly in the April 23, 1974 story: “Princeton is following a policy of benign neutrality and is not making substantive efforts to change.”

If this is as radical as Sotomayor got in her student and young prosecutor days, it doesn’t give Senate Republicans much to work with in the upcoming confirmation hearings. But maybe there’s a rebel-turned-neo-con out there someplace all too happy to spin another tale. Meanwhile, Morgenthau, Sotomayor’s old boss who was singled out by President Obama this morning as “legendary” (which must make it official), has this to say about his former assistant:

“Throughout her career, Judge Sotomayor has shown that she possesses the wisdom, intelligence, collegiality and good character needed to fill the position for which she has been nominated.”