Sonia Sotomayor Joins the Manhattan District Attorney's Office

Ms. Sotomayor spent about five years as a prosecutor.

Interviews with her colleagues and supervisors painted a portrait of a frightened rookie prosecutor who quickly gained the confidence and the trust of others. She became a driven and focused prosecutor who easily fit in, whether in debating fine points of law with lawyers or judges or in interviewing a victim whom she perhaps recognized in broad outlines from her own upbringing in the Bronx.

She had a foot in both worlds, and she was comfortable in both of those worlds”

— Richard H. Girgenti, a former supervisor.

On the recommendation of Cabranes, Sotomayor was hired out of law school as an assistant district attorney under New York County District Attorney Robert Morgenthau starting in 1979. She said at the time that she did so with conflicted emotions: "There was a tremendous amount of pressure from my community, from the third-world community, at Yale. They could not understand why I was taking this job. I'm not sure I've ever resolved that problem." It was a time of crisis-level crime rates and drug problems in New York, Morgenthau's staff was overburdened with cases, and like other rookie prosecutors she was initially fearful of appearing before judges in court. Working in the trial division, she handled heavy caseloads as she prosecuted everything from shoplifting and prostitution to robberies, assaults, and murders. She also worked on cases involving police brutality. She was not afraid to venture into tough neighborhoods or endure squalid conditions in order to interview witnesses. In the courtroom, she was effective at cross examination and at simplifying a case in ways that a jury could relate to. She helped convict the "Tarzan Murderer" (who acrobatically entered apartments, robbed them, and shot residents for no reason) in 1983 in her highest-profile case. She felt lower-level crimes were largely products of socioeconomic environment and poverty, but she had a different attitude about serious felonies: "No matter how liberal I am, I'm still outraged by crimes of violence. Regardless of whether I can sympathize with the causes that lead these individuals to do these crimes, the effects are outrageous." Hispanic-on-Hispanic crime was of particular concern to her: "The saddest crimes for me were the ones that my own people committed against each other." In general, she showed a passion for bringing law and order to the streets of New York, displaying special zeal in pursuing child pornography cases, unusual for the time. She worked 15-hour days and gained a reputation for being driven and for her preparedness and fairness. One of her job evaluations labelled her a "potential superstar". Morgenthau later described her as "smart, hard-working, [and having] a lot of common sense," and as a "fearless and effective prosecutor." She stayed a typical length of time in the post and had a common reaction to the job: "After a while, you forget there are decent, law-abiding people in life."