June 11th, 2009
02:13 PM ET
13 years ago

Sotomayor called herself 'the perfect affirmative action baby'

WASHINGTON (CNN) - Supreme Court nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor admitted years ago she was a "product of affirmative action" when she was admitted to prestigious universities, but defended the contributions she offered as a Hispanic woman to classroom and workplace diversity.

The statements were part of newly-released videos of speeches and panels dating from the mid 1980s that the 54-year-old federal judge provided to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will hold confirmation hearings to the high court beginning July 13.

The remarks offer often candid insights into the New York native's views on the law, growing up poor in a Bronx housing project, juggling a career and a social life, and her 1980s divorce.

In an early 1990s panel with two other female judges, Sotomayor talked about her educational background and how it helped her in her job as a federal trial judge in Manhattan.

"I am a product of affirmative action," she said. "I am the perfect affirmative action baby. I am Puerto Rican born and raised in the south Bronx. My test scores were not comparable to my colleagues at Princeton and Yale. Not so far off so that I wasn't able to succeed at those institutions."

She said by using "traditional numbers" from test scores, "it would have been highly questionable if I would have been accepted."

The female panel members politely objected to her characterizations of how she overcame such obstacles, pointing out she graduated from law school with honors and was on the prestigious law review. Sotomayor countered that was sign test scores alone do not offer the full measure of a person's capability, which she said can be the result often of "cultural biases."

In a 1986 interview with ABC News profiling young female professionals, Sotomayor said she constantly had to deal with subtle forms of discrimination, particularly when it came to public perceptions.

"I found in my experiences that it's not that men are consciously discriminating against promoting woman, but I do believe as people we have self images about what's good," she said. "What's quote-unquote a 'good' lawyer, doctor, or whatever the profession is. And if you're a male who grew up professionally in a male-dominated profession then your image of what a good lawyer is a male image."

Years later on the federal bench, Sotomayor said she encountered similar treatment from older white men particularly, who seemed to speak longer to her than other lawyers. She said the impression she got was that was because she was a woman and a minority.

Sotomayor has been criticized by some conservatives for her remarks on diversity, and her 2001 comment that a "wise Latina woman with the richness of her experience would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life."

In the legal panel she rejected suggestions that minorities should accept "selection by merit alone."

"It is critical that we promote diversity," she added, by giving women and more minorities more opportunities in the law and the judiciary.

"Since I have difficulty defining merit and what merit alone means, and in any context, whether it's judicial or otherwise, I accept that different experiences in and of itself, bring merit to the system," she said. "I think it brings to the system more of a sense of fairness when these litigants see people like myself on the bench."

As a judge, she offered a variety of thoughts on how a judge should act on the bench.

"I have to unhook myself from my emotional responses and try to stay within my unemotional objective persona," she told a group of Hispanic lawyers in 2000.

She said in 1994 such an attitude can be hard to maintain, when as a trial judge she had to deal with some defendants and their families. "I watch those mothers cry and I can't help but feel their pain. Does that translate into a passion or compassion that affects my judgment? No, but it makes me much more important for me to be careful when I exercise my judgment.

In another panel, she noted that she sometimes spoke to some defendants and their families in Spanish in civil cases, to keep them informed of what she was doing. She said she made sure to translate what she was saying into English.

In several events she said the life of a lawyer was rarely glamorous. In a 1986 interview she admitted her divorce was caused in part by her commitment to her career, and that her subsequent social life had suffered as a result.

And as she grew into her thirties, she lamented her earlier expectations had to that point had not been fully realized. "I'm very happy with where Ii am at this point in my life but I think my expectations were greater in 76," when she graduated from Princeton. "I mean I really expected to turn the world on fire."

Perhaps a Supreme Court nomination in her fifties will give her the personal and professional satisfaction she sought those many years ago.

Filed under: Sonia Sotomayor • Supreme Court
soundoff (8 Responses)
  1. Lori reminds the GOP that foreclosures & job losses are down & the Dems hold a 19pt. favorable advantage over the GOP!!!

    Another reason why Affirmative Action is important in this country. I took a class in university once that discussed how testing (not just in the workplace but in the elementary and high schools) can be biased against certain populations (those in poorer, innercities) who aren't given the same adequate education as those in middle class to affluent suburban communities. And I do believe that sometimes it isn't always tests scores that can measure a persons ability to succeed (colleges sometime take that into consideration). No one can doubt that once Sotomayor was admitted into school, she excelled and has proven a highly successful judge, which proves Sotomayor's point. People need to realize that Affirmative Action brings in many qualified (women, ethnic minorities, 'disabled' people, etc.) and once a person gets their 'foot in the door' they excel.

    June 11, 2009 06:35 pm at 6:35 pm |
  2. Brian in VA

    And how is this bad? She is telling the truth. Let's not forget the history here....the government needed to step in to help give minorities a chance in what was the "extreme white America". There is no controversy here.

    June 11, 2009 06:39 pm at 6:39 pm |
  3. Steve

    It is NAIVE to think that there is no affirmative action in any aspect of life. If there is a job opening, who gets it? Who gets promoted to upper management? Of course the ones who are known and have the connections, even if there are perfect candidates out there. Time and time again I have seen this at many companies.

    June 11, 2009 06:59 pm at 6:59 pm |
  4. dentri

    i m minority too but this lady is sick,very sick.No matter what what party you belong this is perfect example how dangerous she can be.Enough is enough we can see with open eyes how much danger can be in the bench.Choose anybody you want but not idot who coment after coment she is proud to be latina,or white are in advantage because of skin color.AMerica is America and bless to be in this country but She need thnaks God she live in this country not blame in whites failure of others ...

    June 11, 2009 07:00 pm at 7:00 pm |
  5. Peggy - TX

    Sonia Sotomayor is a great example of affirmative action working the way it is supose to work. She was given a chance to aquire knowledge and credientials, she took that opertunity and made the most of it and excelled. Now as a well qualified Judge with a long sucessfull track record, she is about to take a position that is way too important to be given to anyone based on affirmative action. In this this case it was not! She is clearly the best qualified.

    June 11, 2009 07:00 pm at 7:00 pm |
  6. the rector

    Yes sonia we all know you are wise and perfect and the answer to all the problems of this white mans messed up world. If only you had been born two hundred years ago how different might history have been. I am sure once you have been fast tracked into the history books you will surly set all those disgusting whities right and elevate the latina people to their rightful place as leaders of the entire world. I only wish I were a wise latina who put my foot in my mouth every time I opened it like you do. By the way how do you feel about abortion and the second amendment? Just wanted to get your wise and perfect advice so I know how screwed up my own white mans opinion is by comparison. All hail barak all hail wise latina sonia.

    June 11, 2009 07:11 pm at 7:11 pm |
  7. Obama Victim

    I guess it's fitting that an Affirmative Action president appoint an Affirmative Action SCOTUS latina women.

    No – we WOULDN'T want anyone to actually qualify for our government roles of leadership!

    – Tax Cheat gets appointed Treasury Secretary

    – Cell Phone Executive gets appointed head of Government Motors

    – Wife of politician known for international fundraising scandals gets appointed Secretary of State

    YEP – "Change" you won't believe!!

    June 11, 2009 07:15 pm at 7:15 pm |
  8. Peter E

    So what? Colin Powell himself was an affirmative action baby, and he proudly, repeatedly admitted, nay, even advocated it! Colin Powell was honest about it, and I know of no other person in the US who has demonstrated what affirmative action can produce if employed correctly! That's not to say that Sotomayor should be in SCOTUS. Not because of ethnicity, but because she has a long record of being an unreasonable, unlawful, partisan hack whose ruling have been overturned far too many times because they ignored the rule of law.

    June 11, 2009 07:16 pm at 7:16 pm |