WASHINGTON, May 26, 2009 - US federal Judge Sonia Sotomayor, 54, who could break ground as the first Hispanic to be named to America's highest court, has long been seen as a trailblazer on the bench.
A White House official said that Sotomayor was to be named Monday by President Barack Obama to the vacancy created by the departure of Justice David Souter. She would join Ruth Bader Ginsburg as the only two women on the nine-member court.
Former justice Sandra Day O'Connor, the first woman to serve on the court, retired in 2005 to care for her ailing husband.
Sotomayor's nomination first must be confirmed by the US Senate however, and her liberal record presages a contentious confirmation process, court watchers said.
For more than a decade, Sotomayor has been mentioned by Democrats as a possible future Supreme Court appointment. But the Puerto Rican jurist has been in sights of Republicans, who see her as a proponent of "hard-left" values, and have targeted her rulings as inimical to conservative causes.
Other critics have decried her demeanor as too temperamental and excitable. Sotomayor's backers, however, are equally ardent.
Stephen Carter, a noted author, law professor at Yale, a member of Sotomayor's law class of 1979, told the New Haven Register that she was a "great" choice.
"She is smart, balanced, reflective and persuasive. What else could we ask for in a justice of the Supreme Court? I think she would be great," he said.
Latino leaders also are lining up behind her. Without directly naming her, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus told Obama after news of Souter's departure that "appointing our nation's first Hispanic justice would undoubtedly be welcomed by our community and bring greater diversity of thought, perspective and experience to the nation's legal system."
Divorced with no children, and with a reputation as a workaholic, Sotomayor often speaks of the courts as "the last refuge for the oppressed." In an American Bar Association profile in 2000, she described an empathetic approach that she felt she brought to the law.
"The practice of law is perhaps the most diverse, eclectic exposure to life that you can receive," she said.
"People come to you with their problems, and their cases cover a wide range of issues. For you to be able to practice law with the vision it requires, you have to be a very well-rounded person because whatever happens out in the real world, whether it involves business or family or technology, usually finds its way into the courtroom."
Sotomayor's is the sort of hardscrabble story Americans love in their public figures.
Raised in low-income housing in the Bronx borough of New York City, her father died when she was nine and her mother, a registered nurse, raised her and a brother as a single parent.
She has said she wanted to be a police detective, but at age eight, her plans were waylaid by a diagnosis of juvenile diabetes, sending her to the law.
"If I couldn't do detective work as a police officer, I could do it as a lawyer," she told the New York Daily News.
Sotomayor won scholarships first to Princeton University, where she graduated summa cum laude and then Yale Law School, where earned the top honor of serving as an editor on the university's Law Review.
After graduation, she worked for a few years as a New York prosecutor, before joining a private business law practice.
In 1991, President George H.W. Bush named her a district judge, and his successor in the White House President Bill Clinton named her to the circuit court in 1997.
At that time, she cleared the US Senate by a 68-28 vote in 1998.
During nearly two decades as a judge she has had played a key role on some prominent cases including against team owners in a case that ended the 1994 baseball strike, and upholding a prison sentence in a high-profile police brutality case.
The case which likely will garner the most scrutiny from the US Senate Judiciary Committee tasked with vetting her is an affirmative action case in which a mostly-white group of New Haven, Connecticut firefighters alleged reverse discrimination.
Sotomayor was on a three-judge appeals court panel that upheld the city's decision to throw out testing results in which 19 white firefighters and one Hispanic would have been promoted, but no African-Americans. The US Supreme Court is to issue a final ruling on the case.