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Remarkable rise of Hispanic destined for US Supreme Court

world Updated: Aug 06, 2009 21:28 IST

Judge Sonia Sotomayor, set to become the first Hispanic to sit on the US Supreme Court, worked her way from the gritty reality of New York City low-income housing to a polished federal courtroom.

Sotomayor, 55, would join Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to be the second woman now serving on the nine-member court if the Senate confirms her nomination as expected in a vote later Thursday.

Former Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, the first woman on the court, which serves as the final arbiter of the US constitution, retired in 2005 to care for her ailing husband.

Sotomayor's remarkable rise in some ways mirrors that of President Barack Obama, who nominated her back in May to fill the vacancy left by retiring justice David Souter.

During nomination hearings, Republicans charged that Sotomayor had insufficiently dispelled their worries that her personal views, not the law, would guide her future decisions on issues like gun rights and race.

But Obama's Democratic allies say Sotomayor's 17-year record on the bench speaks for itself and shows her to be a careful and fair judge, guided by precedent.

The president has said he is counting on her unique perspective, especially her grasp of "how ordinary people live," as mirrored by her own compelling rags-to-riches life story.

Sotomayor's Puerto Rican-born father died when she was nine, and her mother, a registered nurse also born in Puerto Rico, raised the future judge and her brother in low-income housing in the Bronx borough of New York City.

As a child she wanted to be a police detective, but those hopes were dashed when she was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes at the age of eight, prompting her to pursue a career in law.

Sotomayor won scholarships first to Princeton University, where she graduated summa cum laude and then Yale Law School, where she edited the university's prestigious Law Review.

After graduating she worked for a few years as a New York prosecutor before joining a private business law practice.

President George HW Bush made her a district judge in 1991 and his successor in the White House, president Bill Clinton, named her to the circuit court in 1997.

Divorced, with no children and a reputation as a workaholic, Sotomayor has often spoken of the courts as "the last refuge for the oppressed."

Over four days of Senate hearings in July, she fought back against charges of racial bias, professing "fidelity to the law" as her highest virtue and disavowing a past comment that a "wise Latina" might be a better judge than a white male.

The nominee said she had known the weight of being a role model to women, Latinas, immigrants and others over a lifetime of barrier-breaking achievements.

"My career as a judge has shown me that, regardless of what my desires were, that my life, what I have accomplished, does serve as an inspiration for others," she said. "It's a sort of awesome sense of responsibility."

Highlights during Sotomayor's nearly two decades as a judge include her ruling against baseball team owners that ended a 1994 strike and her decision to uphold a prison sentence in a high-profile police brutality case.

For more than a decade, Sotomayor had been mentioned by Democrats as a possible future Supreme Court appointment, but she has often been in the sights of Republicans who see her as a proponent of "hard-left" values.

Other critics have decried her demeanor as too temperamental and excitable. Sotomayor's backers, however, are equally ardent. Latino leaders have also lined up behind her.