The Education of Sonia Sotomayor

In the press portraits written since Barack Obama named her to the Supreme Court in May, two Sonia Sotomayors have emerged. One is the fiery Latina activist who formally complained to the federal government about her university's alleged ethnic bias; who sat on the board of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund when it accused New York City of discrimination in hiring and voting rights; who sometimes suggested that judicial opinions should reflect the gender and ethnic backgrounds of the judges who write them; who asserted that "a wise Latina woman" was likely to reach a better decision than "a white male." The other is the federal court of appeals judge who writes careful, narrowly reasoned opinions that are unexciting but unalarming, that rarely stray from the mainstream. (Story continued below...)

This week, at her confirmation hearings, the Senate Judiciary Committee will be eager to find out which Justice Sotomayor will show up at the Supreme Court on the traditional first Monday in October that begins the court's year. There is no way the senators will be able to know for sure. Sotomayor's judicial record reveals little. Judges on the federal courts of appeals are supposed to stick to the law and to obey precedent. Supreme Court justices, on the other hand, have a freer hand. While they are supposed to respect the slow evolution of the law, they have more discretion than lower-court judges to express personal views, to vote their consciences, to make the law fit what Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. called "the felt necessities of the time."

At her confirmation hearings, Sotomayor is not likely to tip her hand. Her testimony will be carefully considered and undoubtedly guarded. But it is possible to look at the experience that she says did more than any other to shape her—her undergraduate years at Princeton—and get a sense of how her mind works and how she approaches problems. The portrait that emerges is of a shrewd politician who wants to change the system by working within it.

"My days at Princeton … were the single most transforming experience I have had. It was here that I became truly aware of my Latina identity—something I had taken for granted during my childhood when I was surrounded by my family and their friends," Sotomayor said in a speech to the Third World Center at Princeton in 1996. Her sentiment is not unusual among minorities at the school, which has the most Southern and conservative heritage in the Ivy League. Michelle Obama, who attended Princeton in the early '80s, wrote in her senior thesis that she had never felt more aware of her "blackness" than when she was a student at the university. Although Princeton has become quite diverse, many nonwhite students still say they feel a heightened sense of racial identity.

Princeton transformed Sotomayor in another way that she did not mention in her speech. It taught her how to play a particular sort of power game, to get ahead the Princeton way—not by assertion or bullying, but by reason and carefully prepared persuasion. These are values that Princeton has long taught and still tries to teach. Change is to be achieved by working within the system, not by tearing things down.

When Sotomayor arrived in the fall of 1972, she recalled in her 1996 speech, Prince-ton was "an alien land for me." She was a member of only the fourth class to take women. There were very few blacks or Hispanics. It seemed to Sotomayor that the other students had all gone to prep school and taken tennis lessons and enjoyed ski vacations. In the summer after her freshman year, she read the children's and adolescents' classics she had missed but that seemed familiar to all the prep-school students—Alice in Wonderland, Huckleberry Finn, and the novels of Jane Austen.

Sotomayor apparently never encountered outright discrimination. Princeton students are usually too polite for that. Exclusiveness was more subtly, even unconsciously, conveyed. On Sotomayor's very first day, a Southern girl turned to her and two other Hispanic girls and said how wonderful it was that Princeton had all these strange people.

In her freshman year, Sotomayor took a survey course on Latin American history. "She was clearly very intelligent and engaged, but very rough," recalls her professor, Peter Winn. "She was intimidated. She didn't speak in class. She had no idea what she was getting into." Sotomayor has recalled that her writing was "stilted and overly complicated," her "grammar and vocabulary skills weak." Winn undertook to improve it, showing her how to write clear, declarative sentences. More important, he taught her critical thinking. Sotomayor had come from a Roman Catholic high school, Cardinal Spellman, where learning was rote and students were taught to obey authority. Winn's rule was simple: "Be critical of everything, especially things you agree with." Sotomayor was extraordinarily determined to learn, but also cautious and deliberate. "She was slow to join things," Margarita Rosa, who was an activist and a member of the student group Acción Puertorriqueña, told The Daily Princetonian. "She sized up things for a while before she decided to become a part of something." But by the end of her sopho-more year Sotomayor was co-chairman of Acción Puertorriqueña and involved in other groups, as well as a member of the student-faculty Discipline Committee, a powerful position campuswide. Along with other Hispanic leaders at the university, she filed a complaint with the federal Department of Health, Education, and Welfare accusing Princeton of "an institutional pattern of discrimination" against Puerto Ricans and Chicanos. The letter is full of strong language, alleging a "total absence of regard, concern, and respect for an entire people and their culture" and "an attempt—a successful attempt so far—to relegate an important cultural sector of the population to oblivion."

One might think the Princeton administration would be irked by the negative publicity from such a wildly hyperbolic legal complaint. But "no, no, no, no, no," says former Princeton president Bill Bowen. "We were committed to making progress, and we were making progress" on minority hiring and admissions. Sotomayor and the other activists were, in effect, pushing on an open door. Princeton's largely liberal administrators were already committed to transforming the school from WASP bastion to multicultural meritocracy. The only debate was over timing—the university did not wish to act hastily. The important thing was that Sotomayor and the other student activists were working within the system. Though Princeton's campus was tamer than most during the tumult of the late '60s, university administrators were shaken by a building takeover by black activists in 1969.

"What I remember most [about Sotomayor] was just how mature she was," says Bowen. "We didn't see her as wanting to do anything except to improve the university. She wasn't trying to tear anything down." According to some Prince-ton contemporaries interviewed by NEWSWEEK, she reined in the hotheads who wanted to take more direct action, like occupying buildings. Sotomayor was a "true all-rounder," says Bowen. "All-rounder" is a term of high approbation at Princeton, which has long prized brilliant amateurs over narrow specialists. In her senior year she won the Pyne Prize, the university's highest award, for the student who combines scholarship with leadership in campus organizations—the true "all-rounder." She was not a grasping careerist. "She was not one of these students who pushed herself on you," Bowen recalls. Rather, she mastered the very Princeton art of succeeding without appearing to want it too badly. She learned how to show a sense of scholarly detachment. In her 178-page summa cum laude Princeton thesis on the achievements and failures of a Puerto Rican leader named Luis Muñoz Marín, she begins by saying she will put aside her own view—a fairly radical one, that Puerto Rico should be an independent nation. The tone of the thesis is balanced and considered, though with a few bows to faddish radicalism, such as referring to the U.S. Congress as the North American Congress.

Sotomayor has said that she first became interested in the law watching the TV show Perry Mason as a young girl. It is unclear when she first decided that she wanted to be a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Winn, her Princeton mentor, says he would have guessed that after Yale Law she'd become a crusading civil-rights lawyer. Instead, she became a prosecutor representing the state—joining the Manhattan district attorney's office, where Robert Morgenthau, the politically powerful D.A. for life, became one of her champions. (She also continued the activism that started at Princeton by serving from 1980 to 1992 as an engaged board member of the Puerto Rican legal-defense group.) In 1984 she moved on to join a private law firm—gaining experience representing private clients that would serve her well in a career on the bench. Well-connected politically in the Manhattan legal establishment, she became a federal -district-court judge in 1992. When she was elevated to the court of appeals in 1998, there was widespread speculation that she would in time become the Supreme Court's first female Hispanic justice.

She has said nothing in her judicial opinions that would get in the way of that ambition. Her opinions are mostly solid, careful, noncontroversial. She has been a good deal feistier and more overtly liberal off the bench—showing her true colors, conservative critics say. Now their speculation is that she will abandon all restraint once she is given life tenure on the high court. Says Ed Whelan, head of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a leading intellectual conservative critic of the nominee: "As a lower-court judge, she's been obligated to follow Second Circuit and Supreme Court precedent, and she's had ample incentive to do so in order to preserve her viability for the Supreme Court. As a justice, she'd be liberated from the duty to follow precedent she disagrees with. Her disturbing speeches and her fervent embrace of quotas and other left-wing causes provide the clearest window into what to expect from a Justice Sotomayor."

But Whelan and the others may be misreading her. To be sure, she has a reputation for speaking curtly to lawyers appearing before her (especially when they are unprepared) and for occasionally confronting other judges. And it's possible that she will tangle with the most outspoken and sharp-tongued conservative on the court, Antonin Scalia. But it's perhaps more likely she will take a low-key approach, sticking to careful and well-prepared opinions. Sotomayor is not a schemer or a conniver, says her old professor, Peter Winn. But he recalls that when she outmaneuvered those prep-school boys who had seemed so alien to her during freshman year, she permitted herself a wry laugh or two.