This Day In History: August 8

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On August 8, 2009, Sonia Sotomayor is sworn in as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. Born in the Bronx to Puerto Rican parents, Sotomayor is the first Hispanic justice to serve on the nation's highest court.

Sotomayor's mother was an orphan from rural Puerto Rico. Her father had a third-grade education, did not speak English, and died when Sotomayor was 9 years old. Sotomayor grew up in the Bronx and claims that watching the CBS legal drama Perry Mason in her youth led her to aspire to a career as a judge. She received a scholarship to attend Princeton University, where she advocated strongly on behalf of the school's underserved minority communities, and received her J.D. from Yale Law School in 1979.

Sotomayor spent much of her career in private practice but also served on the board of the New York State Mortgage Agency, where she became a vocal proponent of affordable housing and frequently called attention to the effects of gentrification. She also served on the New York City Campaign Finance Board and the board of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund. In 1991, Republican President George H.W. Bush fulfilled her childhood dream by nominating her to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. Six years later, she was confirmed to the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Over the course of her judicial career, she issued an injunction that ended the 1994 Major League Baseball strike in favor of the players, sided with an employee of the New York Police Department who had been fired for sending racist materials through the mail, and gained a reputation for dealing bluntly with the lawyers who argued before her.

Sotomayor was the first Supreme Court justice nominated by President Barack Obama, who had taken office the previous January. The choice of a Hispanic woman by the nation's first non-white president led to a backlash that set the tone for her confirmation hearings. In particular, a comment she had made in 2001 about "a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences" being a better-qualified than being "a white male who hasn't lived that life" rankled her opponents. Nearly every Republican on the Senate Judicial Committee—all of whom were white men—brought up the comment during their questioning, while pundits speculated about Sotomayor's impartiality and even accused her of being racist. Nonetheless, she was easily confirmed by a Democratic majority and nine of the Senate's 40 Republicans.

In addition to becoming the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice, Sotomayor was the third woman named to the bench. The following year, Justice Elena Kagan would become the fourth. Since her appointment, Sotomayor has been notable for her forceful dissent in several cases regarding racial discrimination, as well as siding with the majority in a 5-4 decision that upheld the Affordable Care Act.