WASHINGTON — In late 1979, Cesar Perales, the head of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, fielded an unusual request from Jose Cabranes, a federal judge and a leading figure in Latino legal circles: Would he place Sonia Sotomayor, a recent Yale Law School graduate, on his board?
Perales normally tried to stock his board with people who had money or connections that could benefit the fund, the nation's most important Puerto Rican legal advocacy group.
Sotomayor had neither.
But he deferred to Cabranes and put Sotomayor on his board.
Cabranes, who had been general counsel at Yale University before moving to the bench, "was her patron, her mentor. He knew her. He thought she was a good fit," Perales said.
Sotomayor went on to serve on the PRLDEF board for a dozen years. The appointment became a kind of template for her career leading up to her 1992 confirmation for a seat on the federal District Court bench in New York, a post she did not publicly aspire to.
Interviews with associates from the 1980s suggest that it was a series of influential mentors, like Cabranes, who helped her build a civic resume and eventually pushed her toward a judgeship.
Sotomayor, now 54 and a federal appellate judge, was nominated last month to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice David H. Souter. If confirmed, she would be the high court's first Latino justice and its third woman.
Cabranes declined to be interviewed. But in an e-mail message, he confirmed his role in steering Sotomayor to the PRLDEF board, as well as recommending her to Manhattan Dist. Atty. Robert Morgenthau for her first job. Sotomayor worked as a prosecutor in Morgenthau's office from 1979 to 1984.
"We have a lot of talented people coming though here. She was one of the top people. Smart, hard-working, a lot of common sense," said Morgenthau, who recommended Sotomayor for a post on a city campaign board and for her District Court judgeship.
Sotomayor also received crucial boosts from the late David Botwinik, a partner at Pavia & Harcourt, a small New York law firm she joined in 1984, and from his boyhood friend, Judah Gribetz, an attorney and longtime advisor to New York politicians.
In 1987, the two men urged New York Democratic Gov. Mario Cuomo to consider Sotomayor for a position in state government.
With that assist, Sotomayor initially inquired about a state job as general counsel for the Urban Development Corp., which built state-subsidized housing.
But Sotomayor so impressed gubernatorial staffers that they urged her take on a bigger job.
"She floored us," said Ellen Conovitz, Cuomo's appointments secretary at the time.
The bigger job turned out to be a seat on the board of the State of New York Mortgage Agency, a provider of mortgages for low-income residents.
Among board members with strong personalities, "she was very prepared and thoughtful, and a voice of mediation," said Andrew Goldman, the agency's former executive vice president. "I found her to be direct, which I liked."
The following year, Morgenthau recommended Sotomayor to the administration of Mayor Ed Koch for a seat on a newly formed five-member New York Campaign Finance Board, which among other tasks distributed public funding for local elections.
Sotomayor was "hard-nosed and scrupulous" and more of a stickler for the rules than some other members, said board colleague James I. Lewis.
According to Lewis, Sotomayor wanted the board to sanction the 1989 mayoral campaign of Democrat David Dinkins for sloppy financial record-keeping.
But Lewis and other board members won out with an argument for leniency.
"I felt like a fool," Lewis said. Dinkins "did the same thing in '93."
Although she had a strong desire to give back to her community, Sotomayor had to be nudged into applying for a judgeship, said Richard Mattiaccio, a former partner at Pavia & Harcourt.
Mattiaccio recalled hearing that Sotomayor was about to receive an endorsement from U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) for a seat on the bench and heading happily into Botwinik's office to try to learn more.
"I asked David, 'How did this happen?' He said, 'I just decided her name should be in the hopper.' It wasn't Sonia's initiative. It was David's."
Sotomayor's application went to Gribetz, who at the time was the gatekeeper for Moynihan's judicial screening committee.
Moynihan was taken by Sotomayor's background and her achievements, Gribetz said.
"His interest was in the pursuit of excellence and in the pursuit of diversity, which are not mutually exclusive," Gribetz said.
James Oliphant in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.