Sonia Sotomayor’s Personal History: Why It Matters

Posted on June 2nd, 2009 by Katherine Franke
 1 comment  

There has been much made of Sonia Sotomayor’s life, her Puerto Rican background, her modest, if not poor, childhood, her mother, what her Latina-ness means to her, obama_and_sotomayorher involvement in civil rights organizations, etc.  It’s both a big part of why Obama picked her to serve on the Supreme Court and will form the basis of the attacks launched against her – it already has.  Rush Limbaugh has likened Sonia Sotomayor to David Duke, a leader of the Ku Klux Klan.

Much can be said about how these attacks/critiques are disingenuous, mean, racist, sexist and offensive.   Of course each of us is informed by our past, our experiences, the advantages and disadvantages that we have experienced.  It’s just that you notice how the disadvantages more than the advantages shape who you are.

But for the moment I’ll leave to others such as my colleague Patricia Williams to address this aspect of the opposition to Sotomayor’s nomination.  Instead I want to focus on what her life history – including but not reduced to her nomination to the Supreme Court – has meant for Latina law students.

One of the things I enjoy most about teaching at Columbia Law School is the diversity of students we have.  Our JD students come from everywhere, and have every possible background.  Many of them see themselves mirrored in the faculty and on the federal judiciary, but a good number of them don’t.   Those who don’t know they don’t, and it often takes a leap of faith or just dogged perseverence for them to feel like they belong at a place like Columbia and that they might one day be in the front of the room teaching or up on the bench judging.   Sonia Sotomayor is fully aware of the burden she carries as a role model for female students, Latina/o students, and students who didn’t come from privileged backgrounds.  We’ve talked about this over dinner.

In this regard, what follows is a letter written by a former Columbia Law Student (with her permission) to Judge Sotomayor after her nomination to the Supreme Court was announced.  Judge Sotomayor has taught a course at Columbia on Federal Court advocacy for a number of years, which students have loved, and she was the speaker at the Columbia Law School graduation in 2004.  This student copied us on the letter she sent to Judge Sotomayor:

Dear Hon. Sonia Sotomayor:

Here I sit watching you stand proudly next to President Obama as he announces your nomination to the Supreme Court and I am so incredibly proud and happy for you and your family (especially your mom!).  God bless you and keep you always.

I was one of your externs back in 2003 and was so humbled to have been chosen to work with you.  Thank you so much for the opportunity you gave me.  You impressed me so much with your integrity, wisdom and humility.  Your heart was always true.  Back then I was also co-chair of Columbia Law School’s graduating class of 2004 and when we discussed who would be our commencement speaker, I could not fathom anyone but you speaking and inspiring our class to reach their God-given potential.  If anyone could make them believe in their dreams, it would be you.  And only you deserved that honor (or so I thought).  After nominating you, the decision to invite you to be our commencement speaker was unanimous and it was one of the proudest moments of my law school career.  Thank you.

Since graduating, I have been working for the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency under the U.S. Department of the Treasury in New York.  I recently became a Senior Attorney here and am grateful to dedicate my career to federal public service.  So much has happened in the last five to six years.  I got married and have a one-year old son, Isaac.

Undoubtedly, you will change the course of American history.  That goes without saying.  But there are also so many individuals out there, including me, whose lives will be forever molded by today’s events.  While I externed for you, I lived in a public housing project in Rockaway Park, Queens — I had lived there since the age of 13 with my mother and younger brother.  My family and I were poor and constantly struggling to survive.  I never let anyone keep me down or hold me back from what I believed my path to be, but I hope you don’t mind that I will “use” you as my personal inspiration to move forward and fulfill my life’s purpose (whatever that may be).  Thank you again.

Lastly, I know that you may not remember me.  I don’t consider myself a very memorable person, which was one of the reasons I hesitated to write to you.  I also felt that you had other, more important things to do and wouldn’t have time for me.  But if I don’t write to you now, I would probably never get the chance to thank you.  You will always be in my prayers and I am looking forward to hearing people call you Justice Sotomayor.


Ancris Munoz Ramdhanie
Columbia Law School Class of 2004

This is why Sonia Sotomayor’s background is important.

One comment

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