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Manhattan DA Morgenthau helped boost Sotomayor’s career

By A. James Memmott

June 12, 2009 at 9:33am

Upon gradation from Yale Law School in 1979, Sonia Sotomayor, President Obama’s pick to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court, made a surprising career choice.

Instead of taking a lucrative job with a law firm, she signed on as an assistant in the New York County District Attorney’s office, the organization better known as the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office.

As The New York Times reported Monday, Sotomayor started work at a particularly hard time. Crime was high; resources were low.

And yet, Sotomayor’s five years as a prosecutor proved vital to her education as a lawyer and to her rise to her current position as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second District.

Robert M. Morgenthau
Robert Morgenthau

In addition, she gained a patron in Robert M. Morgenthau, the Yale Law School graduate and Manhattan district attorney who hired her.

Morgenthau, 89, who will retire at the end of this year after 35 years as Manhattan district attorney, met Sotomayor through a Yale connection, the Times reports.

In 1979, he asked José A. Cabranes, a Yale Law graduate who was then the university’s general counsel, if there were any law students he would recommend for a job at the district attorney’s office.

Cabranes, who now serves with Sotomayor on the Court of Appeals, suggested Sotomayor. He then told Sotomayor about the conversation. She gave Morgenthau a call and was soon hired.

Sotomayor left the district attorney’s office for private practice in 1984, but the connection with Morgenthau stayed strong.

In one instance, he recommended her for a seat on the city’s Campaign Finance Board. Peter L. Zimroth, the city’s corporation counsel, interviewed Sotomayor and she was named to the board.

While in private practice in the 1980s, Sotomayor also caught the eye of Judah Gribetz, a lawyer with connections everywhere.

In 1992, Gribetz was serving as the head of Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s committee on judicial appointments, the group that helped the senator choose candidates for nomination to the federal bench.

At that time, Sotomayor applied to the committee for consideration as a federal judge, her candidacy supported by Morgenthau.

Gribetz and his colleagues backed her; Moynihan endorsed their choice and sent it on to President George H.W. Bush. Bush, in turn, nominated Sotomayor as a U.S. circuit court judge in the Second District.

She served in that position until becoming a judge on the Court of Appeals in 1998.

Sotomayor’s five years as a prosecutor in New York City would make her an exception on the Supreme Court.

Some of the current justices have experience as prosecutors at the federal or state level, but, as indicated by their official biographies, none of them were city or county prosecutors.

But Morganthau’s office has a well-known alumni group. It includes Eliot Spitzer, the former governor of New York, and Andrew Cuomo the state’s current attorney general.

The late John F. Kennedy Jr., worked in the office, and Linda A. Fairstein, the crime novelist, was the long-time chief of sex-crimes prosecution under Morgenthau. Pierre N. Laval, who also sits with Sotomayor on the court of appeals, is a former chief assistant to Morgenthau.

Three of Morgenthau’s former assistants, Richard M. Aborn, Leslie Crocker Snyder and Cyrus R. Vance Jr., are seeking the Democratic nomination for district attorney.

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