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Jose Cabranes was an early mentor to Sonia Sotomayor

By A. James Memmott

June 23, 2009 at 6:38am

Every career, even early on, has a turning point.

For Sonia Sotomayor, President Obama’s nominee to fill a vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court, the turning point may have come when she had lunch with Jose A. Cabranes in 1976.

At The New York Times reported Monday, Sotomayor was a new student at Yale University Law School and Cabranes, now a federal judge, as is Sotomayor, was the university’s general counsel as well as a Yale Law graduate.

Sonia Sotomayor
Sonia Sotomayor

The pair talked for three hours about their shared Puerto Rican heritage and other matters.

“At the end of the lunch, Jose offered me a summer job,” Sotomayor said years later at an event honoring Cabranes. ” I accepted, and Jose became my first legal (profession) employer, then my mentor and career advisor.”

For sure, Cabranes, who is now 68, gave good advice to Sotomayor, who turns 55 Thursday and will become the first Hispanic justice on the court if her nomination is approved by the Senate.

Early on, Cabranes linked Sotomayor with Robert M. Morgenthau, the Manhattan District Attorney and a Yale Law graduate.

At Cabranes’ urging, Sotomayor took a job as assistant district attorney in Morgenthau’s office upon graduation from law school, thereby getting valuable experience as a prosecutor.

In addition, in Morgenthau she acquired a politically powerful and well-connected patron.

Later, Cabranes urged Sotomayor to join the board of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Cabranes, who moved to New York City from Puerto Rico with his parents when he was 5, was a founding member of the group and had served as chairman of its board.

Cabranes also blazed a trial on the judiciary that Sotomayor followed.

In 1979, he became the first Puerto Rican to serve as a U.S. District Court judge.

In 1994, he became the second Puerto Rican to serve on a U.S. Court of Appeals, when he became a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

He was long-mentioned as a possible justice on the Supreme Court and was said to be on the short list of candidates during the administrations of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

Sotomayor became a U.S. District Court judge in 1992; in 1998, she joined Cabranes on the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, where they both still serve.

According to the Times, Sotomayor and Cabranes have not always agreed in their rulings on the appeals court.

They split most recently in a controversial case in which white firefighters in New Haven, Conn., argued that the city should not have thrown out the results of an exam after no black firefighters scored high enough to qualify for promotion.

Sotomayor ruled against the white firefighters. In a strongly worded dissent, Cabranes took their side.

Cabranes told the Times that this kind of disagreement reflects “the nature of appellate rulings.” He added that he believed he had put Sotomayor “on the right path” when he became her adviser and advocate at Yale.

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