Before Sotomayor, there was Carro — and different link to presidential history

In tracing back the politics of Sonia Sotomayor’s first nomination to the federal bench, I’ve become interested in John Carro, who was a judge in New York City and recommended for a federal district-court seat that Sotomayor eventually landed. I knew the outlines of Carro’s compelling life story, but in new research over the weekend I learned more and was reminded of how disparate strands of history can intertwine.

In 1988, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., recommended Carro for a U.S. trial judgeship in New York’s southern district. Neither President Ronald Reagan nor George H.W. Bush took the Democratic senator’s recommendation, and Carro asked Moynihan to withdraw his name in January 1991. A few months later, Moynihan suggested Sonia Sotomayor (27 years younger than Carro and without his liberal record), launching a judicial career that led to her 2009 Supreme Court appointment.

Carro, born in Puerto Rico, moved to New York with his family when he was about 10. He went to Fordham, then Brooklyn Law School, and became a vigorous advocate for Latino legal rights. He worked for New York Mayor Robert Wagner in the early 1960s, and was appointed to the New York Criminal Court in 1969. A decade later, Gov. Hugh Carey named him to the Appellate Division, which is where he was when Moynihan tried to get Carro a seat on the federal bench. (Carro retired in 1994.) In researching his background, I discovered a transcript of an interview in which Carro recalled the tough East Harlem neighborhood of his youth and how he had to run home from school each day to avoid getting beat up or having his books, pencils or money stolen.

Here’s the connection that surprised me: Carro’s off-handed reference to his boyhood came as he was being deposed in 1964 about his time as a probation officer, when he met a boy named Lee Harvey Oswald. That was in 1953, and Oswald, then about 13, was a truant. Carro wrote up a history of the family and the boy’s problems. As a window on Oswald — and Carro — the transcript (link) is fascinating. Here are two small pieces that reveal a different chapter of American history, one having nothing to do with judicial nominations but ever so captivating:

First, Carro recalls Oswald as a boy compared to the youths he typically saw: “Most of the boys that I had on probation were Puerto Rican or Negro, and they were New York type of youngsters who spoke in the same slang, who came from the Bronx whom I knew how to relate to because I knew the areas where they came from. … [T]his boy was different … . I was a Catholic probation officer and this boy was a Lutheran, which was strange to begin with, because you normally carry youth of your own background. And secondly that he did dress in a western style with the levis, and he spoke with this southwestern accent which made him different from the average boy that I had on probation. … [T]here was no indication that this boy had any Marxist leanings or that he had any tendencies at that age that I was able to view that would lead him into future difficulty.”

Carro also explains how he came to realize that the boy he once knew was the man who shot President Kennedy on November 22, 1963: “I believe it was after the burial or just about that time, while I was watching the papers, on the day that he actually was killed by [Jack] Ruby, that I saw some pictures of the mother, and I started reading about the New York situation, that it suddenly tied in, because, you know, something happening in Texas … you hardly associate with a youngster that you had 10 years prior… . A friend of mine called me up, a social worker, to tell me, ‘Carro, you know who that case is?’ And he said, ‘That was the case you handled. Don’t you remember?’ And then we started discussing the case, and I remembered then, and what happened then is I felt, you know, it was a kind of a numb feeling …”