Doctor of Laws

When President Barack Obama nominated Sonia Sotomayor on May 26, 2009, to serve as an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, he noted that she would bring to the court “not only the knowledge and experience acquired over a course of a brilliant legal career, but the wisdom accumulated from an inspiring life’s journey.”

When she was sworn in on August 8, 2009, she became the first Latina justice and the third woman to serve on the Supreme Court.

Justice Sotomayor was born in the Bronx, New York, to Puerto Rican parents. Her mother, Celina, had enlisted in the Women’s Army Corps during World War II and migrated from Puerto Rico to the mainland United States, where she served in New York City. After her discharge, Celina married Juan, who died when Justice Sotomayor was nine years old. 

Her mother, a nurse, raised Justice Sotomayor and her younger brother, Juan, now a physician in Syracuse, as a single parent, with support from extended family members, including the justice’s paternal grandmother, who she has said provided a source of “protection and purpose.”

Justice Sotomayor said that her mother placed an “almost fanatical emphasis” on higher education, pushing her and her brother to become fluent in English and making significant sacrifices to purchase a set of encyclopedias that would give them proper research materials for school.

More on Justice Sonia Sotomayor

• From Student Life

• From The Source

• Watch her talk with WashU students

After her father’s death, Justice Sotomayor turned to books and academics for solace. It was her newfound love of Nancy Drew mysteries that inspired a love of reading and the TV series Perry Mason’s dramatic courtroom scenes that set her on a path to becoming an attorney. 

Justice Sotomayor graduated as valedictorian from Cardinal Spellman High School in New York City.

She earned a bachelor of arts degree in 1976 from Princeton University, graduating summa cum laude and as a member of Phi Beta Kappa and receiving the Pyne Prize, the highest academic honor Princeton awards to an undergraduate. In 1979, she earned a JD from Yale Law School, where she served as an editor of the Yale Law Journal

She thereafter served as an assistant district attorney in the New York County District Attorney’s Office from 1979–1984. She then litigated international commercial matters in New York City at Pavia & Harcourt, where she was an associate and then partner from 1984–1992. 

In the time between joining the firm and becoming a judge in 1992, Justice Sotomayor served on multiple New York City boards that included affordable housing for low-income homeowners, civil rights issues, and public funding for political candidates. 

In 1991, President George H.W. Bush nominated her to the U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York.

Between 1992 and 1998, she presided over roughly 450 cases at the U.S. District Court. Among other matters, she was asked to rule on the dispute between Major League Baseball and the players’ union, a conflict that had caused the cancellation of the 1994 World Series.

After a strike lasting 232 days, Justice Sotomayor ruled in the players’ favor. Shortly thereafter, the players returned to work. Her decision brought her national attention as “the judge who saved baseball.”

In 1997, she was nominated by President Bill Clinton to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit where she served from 1998–2009.

While serving as a federal judge, she lectured in law at Columbia Law School and was an adjunct professor at New York University Law School.

The first case she heard after assuming the role of associate justice of the Supreme Court was Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, where she dissented from the majority, which held in favor of the rights of corporations in campaign finance.

During her time on the Supreme Court, Justice Sotomayor has become known for her concerns for the rights of defendants; dissenting on issues of race, ethnicity and gender; and calls for criminal justice reform. 

The Bronxdale Houses, a public housing development where she lived as a child, was renamed in her honor in 2010. Sotomayor is a New York Times bestselling and award-winning author. She is the author of My Beloved World; Turning Pages: My Life Story; The Beloved World of Sonia Sotomayor; Just Ask! Be Different, Be Brave, Be You; and Just Help! How to Build a Better World.

Justice Sotomayor visited the Washington University campus last month and spoke before a crowd of more than 3,000 students, faculty and staff during a question-and-answer session on April 5, 2022, in the Field House.