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Year One: Justice Sonia Sotomayor

The Supreme Court’s first Latina distinguishes herself as the “people’s justice.”

En español │The Miranda warning. Gun control. Religious symbols on public lands. Parole for youthful offenders. Campaign finance. In her first year on the nation’s highest court, Justice Sonia Sotomayor tackled pivotal issues, and while she’s sometimes sided with the majority, she hasn’t shied away from expressing a dissenting opinion.

Sotomayor “definitely hit the ground running” after donning her black robes, says Tom Goldstein, an attorney specializing in Supreme Court litigation and a founder of the highly respected SCOTUS blog.

One of the most controversial cases faced by the new justice—the third woman and first Hispanic on the court—dealt with an individual’s rights under the Miranda warning, also known as Miranda rights. Miranda v. Arizona is the 1966 Supreme Court case that established a suspect’s right to decline to make self-incriminating statements and a right to legal counsel.

In the current case, the court voted 5–4 that a Michigan defendant had given up his right to remain silent by uttering one word after nearly three hours of questioning. “The decision turns Miranda upside down,” Sotomayor wrote in a forceful dissent. “Criminal suspects must now unambiguously invoke their right to remain silent, which counterintuitively requires them to speak … [or they] will be legally presumed to have waived their [Miranda] rights.”

Sotomayor’s “real-world experience” as a prosecutor and a judge may well have influenced that dissent, says Fabio Arcila Jr., a professor at New York’s Touro Law Center: “It seems influenced by a nuanced view of criminal offenders who have varying levels of understanding as to what Miranda means, and varying approaches as to how they would express a desire to remain silent.”

In another case, Sotomayor joined dissenters in the 5–4 decision that struck down Chicago’s gun ban, basing the decision on a 2008 gun rights case known as District of Columbia v. Heller. The minority opinion, by the more liberal members of the court, stated that the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution does not give U.S. citizens a fundamental right to bear arms.

Sotomayor’s dissent drew criticism from Republican senators who had questioned her about Heller during her confirmation hearing. Sotomayor had said that Heller, which overturned the District of Columbia’s gun ban, was “settled law.” Recalling that statement, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, called Sotomayor’s decision to join the dissent on the Chicago case “a flip-flop on the Second Amendment.”

In addition to those notable first-year decisions, Sotomayor also demonstrated how a Hispanic on the Supreme Court can have an impact. In her first written decision, a case concerning attorney-client privilege, she wrote the majority opinion and broke with high court tradition by using the terms “undocumented immigrant” and “undocumented worker” instead of “illegal immigrant.”

Goldstein says Sotomayor’s active participation in oral arguments, the speed with which she wrote the opinions assigned to her, her conviviality on the bench—she’s even on friendly terms with conservative Antonin Scalia, virtually her ideological opposite—and how the other justices treat her, indicate she’s highly respected.

That respect doesn’t disappear at the end of the day when the black robes come off. Her supporters reach beyond Washington, D.C.

The Bronx native fought back tears during a June ceremony renaming the public housing project where she grew up the Justice Sonia Sotomayor Houses and Community Center. “Every single time I drive by that building, I imagine my dad watching me from that window as I go by,” Sotomayor, 56, told the crowd at the event.

Sotomayor’s parents, Juan Luis and Celina Sotomayor, moved to New York from Puerto Rico, but her father died when she was nine and she was raised by her mother. Like Clarence Thomas, she is one of the few Supreme Court justices who have come from humble beginnings.

The public will soon have a better idea of how that upbringing has shaped her. Sotomayor has somehow found time during her first year on the high court to collaborate on a memoir of her  life, from her childhood in the Bronx to her Supreme Court nomination. There is no release date, but the book will be published simultaneously in English and Spanish.

When President Obama nominated her for the high court, he described Sotomayor assomeone who has  “an understanding of how the world works and how ordinary people live.”

Like her opinions, her bank account, too, seems to bear that out. With five millionaires on the high court, Sotomayor is distinguished by her modest means. According to the latest court financial reports, Sotomayor’s reported assets are worth less than $66,000, not including her Greenwich Village condo valued at an estimated $1.2 million.

And her lifestyle seems remarkably ordinary. But you won’t hear that from Sotomayor, who has adopted the Supreme Court tradition of shunning the limelight and declined an interview request for this story. Though much of her life is public record, friends add to Sotomayor’s portrait.

“She’s always been a very accessible, down-to-earth person,” says Arcila, who met Sotomayor when she was a judge on the New York-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. “In my interactions with her outside the courtroom, she was always very helpful to attorneys and supportive of members of the Hispanic Bar Association.”

A self-described “Nuyorican,” Sotomayor loves socializing and New York’s urban lifestyle. Longtime friend Dawn Cardi says that joining the Supreme Court has been easier for her friend than becoming a public figure and adapting to the buttoned-down culture of Washington, D.C. “She can go grocery shopping, but [now] everybody recognizes her,” she says. “She’s used to doing things for herself, going to the car wash, the farmers’ market. She still tries to do so, but much less so.”

The justice, who has remained single since her 1983 divorce from Chicago lawyer Kevin Edward Noonan, has kept her New York condo and goes there as often as possible. While in D.C., she invites friends to dinners in her home. But her free time is limited by her habit of bringing work home, those who know her say.

“Sonia has always been challenged by a lot of work,” says Cardi’s husband, Kenneth Kinzer. “But the biggest change in her life in the last year is that now it’s always work, work, work.”

Perhaps Sotomayor’s Supreme Court career will mirror that of retired Justice John Paul Stevens, who, Cardi says, is known as a “pragmatic populist” and took Sotomayor under his wing. Whether Sotomayor will follow Steven’s judicial philosophy is unknown.

One thing the term seems to suggest, says Jenny Rivera, a professor at the City University of New York School of Law and a former law clerk for Sotomayor. The justice seems to take a practical approach to the law and “comes to her conclusions based on the facts in front of her,” Rivera says. “Her decisions apply to real people.”

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