NEW YORK — Sonia Sotomayor's ascent to nominee to the nation's highest court began in a Bronx housing project, fed by Nancy Drew, inspired by Perry Mason and encouraged by her hardworking mother.
Her mother worked two jobs after coming to New York from Puerto Rico, including as a nurse at a methadone clinic after her husband died when Sotomayor was 9. The mother instilled in Sotomayor and her brother a strong ethic of hard work and the importance of education. The brother became a doctor.
The 54-year-old Supreme Court nominee got her first taste of the law as she buried herself in Nancy Drew books, but it was an episode of Perry Mason that provided the defining moment in Sotomayor's childhood. Watching the camera settle on the judge at the end of an episode, she immediately realized "he was the most important player in that room," Sotomayor said in a 1998 interview.
President Barack Obama built on her rags-to-riches story Tuesday as he nominated her to the Supreme Court, following a distinguished legal career in which she served as a prosecutor, corporate litigator, trial judge and, most recently, as a member of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in New York.
Born in Manhattan, Sotomayor graduated summa cum laude from Princeton, then became an editor of the Yale Law Journal at Yale Law School. She joined the Manhattan District Attorney's Office and the board of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund.
"She is a brilliant person whose intellect is only overshadowed by her humility, which stems from her being an ordinary person," said Carlos Ortiz, chairman of the Supreme Court Committee in the Hispanic National Bar Association.
Sotomayor, who is divorced and has no children, lives in Manhattan. She earned $179,500 as a federal appellate judge in New York last year, plus $14,780 teaching at New York University's law school and $10,000 as a lecturer at Columbia University's law school, according to her most recent financial disclosure report.
At a recent program honoring the creator of a documentary showing children who have thrived even in threatening environments, Sotomayor, her round face beaming, seemed to be enjoying the attention she was receiving as her nomination to the Supreme Court seemed likely.
In brief remarks, she described the documentary as fabulous.
"We should applaud more frequently those who transform a lost life," Sotomayor said.
Jon O. Newman, a senior judge on the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and a former chief judge, said the appointment was the culmination of "the American dream of sheer talent triumphing and being rewarded."
He added: "She's overcome adversity growing up and made herself an enormous success based on talent and strength of character. And that's the American dream."