WASHINGTON — She likes to eat pig intestines and watch "Law & Order." She felt like an alien in the Ivy League. She reads fictional courtroom dramas and hands down imaginary rulings on the lawyers' objections therein.
Judge Sonia Sotomayor's self-portrait, revealed in scores of speeches and writings released Thursday, portrays a "daughter of the Bronx" who rose from a lower middle-class background to the academic and legal elite — but felt panicked on the cusp of each step up.
Even after six years as a federal district court judge, Sotomayor recalled feeling anxious when President Bill Clinton appointed her to the federal appeals court.
"I was devastated about leaving a court and friends I loved and felt secure with, panic stricken about how hard my new work would be and whether I could do it," she told the Bronx Leadership Academy in 2000. "On the other hand, it is so exciting to be at the door of a major change in one's life."
She finds herself there again, and under renewed scrutiny, as President Barack Obama's choice to replace retiring Justice David Souter on the Supreme Court. Sotomayor, 54, would be the first Hispanic and only the third woman to sit on the high court.
Much has been made of Sotomayor's view of how a judge's personal background informs the way he or she interprets the law. Her most controversial statement, that as a "wise Latina" she hoped she would rule better than someone without her experiences, have played big roles in Sotomayor's conversations with senators who will decide her fate.
She has assured several of them that a judge must ultimately and completely follow the law. But in speeches, Sotomayor also maintains that a judge cannot stop experiences from shaping rulings.
"Our experiences as women and people of color affect our decisions," Sotomayor said in the same speech in 2001. "The aspiration to impartiality is just that; it's an aspiration, because it denies the fact that we are by our experiences making different choices than others."
Sotomayor describes her own in vivid detail, a self-selected glimpse of the American experience through the eyes of a child of Puerto Rican parents growing up in New York City in the 1950s and '60s.
She spent grammar school in the Bronxdale projects with aunts, uncles and cousins living all around and comprising her social network. Merengue and salsa music played at all family parties; Saturday afternoon was spent watching movies with cousins, the evenings with other family members and friends playing bingo using chick peas as markers. Summers, Sotomayor recalled, meant visiting relatives in Puerto Rico.
Food played a big part of Sotomayor's family life. "Because of my very Puerto Rican taste buds," Sotomayor loves what might sound like exotic fare to some: pig intestines on warm bread, pig feet and beans and pig tongue and ears.
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Video: GOP's split personality on Sotomayor But Sotomayor's childhood wasn't all Christmas dinners and shaved ice in summertime.
There were sad memories, too. When her grandmother could not care for Sotomayor, she would be cared for by an aunt "in her seamstress sweatshop," with blackened windows.
"I struggled all day to get to the door to smell some fresh air and see light," Sotomayor recalled in a 2007 speech. "Titi would vigilantly chase me away from the door all day long. Little did I know then that the shop and its employees were hiding themselves from the police."
Sotomayor: "Princeton was an alien land for me"
Princeton was a long way off, culturally more than geographically. It was the first time Sotomayor ventured outside her "cocoon" of Puerto Rican family and culture.
Sotomayor stayed in her room the first week, she recalled in a 1998 speech. Many of her classmates had gone to prep school and knew about tennis lessons and European vacations.
More troubling, Sotomayor learned, was the academic gulf between them. Sotomayor read classics that were new to her like "Alice in Wonderland," "Huckleberry Finn" and "Pride and Prejudice." She had to learn anew how to write.
"Princeton was an alien land for me," Sotomayor recalled. A Puerto Rican group on campus and Puerto Rican alumni helped ground her, and in her senior year, she was honored for academic excellence.
Fun on the job
Sotomayor was on her way to the legal elite. President George H.W. Bush nominated her to the federal bench in 1992, and Clinton elevated her to the appeals court in 1997.
She told the Bronx Leadership Academy in 2000 that she loves being a judge even more than being a lawyer.
Video: Sotomayor questionnaire released "I have loved my work because I have always remembered to do fun things while I am working," she said.
Those endeavors have included, Sotomayor revealed in another speech, such television legal dramas as "LA Law," "Law & Order" and "The Practice."
"The Best Defense," by Ellis Cose, is "an enjoyable and fun book" — flawed rulings by its judges notwithstanding.
"I manage to put aside my disagreements with their errors, and to get taken up in the drama," Sotomayor told the New York County Lawyer's Association. She added that she identified with the book's prosecutor, Mario Santiago, as he struggled with the Hispanic community's expectations of him.
As for her own expectations, a seat on the high court may not have been one of them.
Sotomayor told an audience of graduating students in 2003: "When one of you gets to the Supreme Court or the Academy Awards, invite me so I can be in the audience."
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