The U.S. Supreme Court justice lifts the curtain on her past and how it helped her become who she is today. Excerpt from “Justice Sonia Sotomayor,” January 28, 2013.
SONIA SOTOMAYOR, Associate Justice, U.S. Supreme Court; Author, My Beloved World
In conversation with M. ELIZABETH MAGILL, Dean and Richard E. Lang Professor of Law, Stanford Law School
MAGILL: Did you hesitate about writing such a personal book? What has the response been to writing it this way?
SOTOMAYOR: I took a big risk to be as open and candid as I’ve been in this book; [it] made me very vulnerable to people’s criticisms. As you’ll learn in the book, I have a whole slew of insecurities [laughter] and this is just one among many. But I’ve read a lot of memoirs, and at the end of reading them I come away and think to myself sometimes, “Have I learned anything new about this person that I didn’t already know from the press?” And regrettably, the answer is [usually] no, I haven’t.
My life, at least the public part of it, had been so dissected during my confirmation hearing that I knew I wasn’t adding value anywhere if that’s all I concentrated on. As I got catapulted onto the world’s stage – I can’t even say the country’s stage, but the world’s stage, because so many people across the world look to the Supreme Court as an example to which they are aspiring – I realized that I was on another journey with being a Supreme Court justice, and I should stop and pause to remember what had gotten me there. I wanted to hold on to the Sonia inside of me, and I’ve been laughingly telling people that if I change in any way that they don’t like in the future, I wrote a heavy book so they can hit me over the head with it and point to it and tell me, “Reread this; remember how you got here.”
[Another reason to write the book this way was] the many questions that I was asked during my first year on the Supreme Court by so many audiences; so many were asking me personal questions, and it was clear that many found at least the facts of my life inspiring. What I worried about, though, was whether I was being idealized, as if I had some magic answers that people didn’t have, or I had something special that they’d like to hear about but they weren’t sure they had. I wanted anyone who read this book, at the end of it, to be able to say, “She’s just like me. And if she can do it, I can do something, too.”
Now, there aren’t that many spots on the Supreme Court, but the book was about self-discovery, about me taking very small steps in life to better myself, to do things I hadn’t done before, to compete, not with others, but with Sonia. That journey took me further and further, and I’ve gone a lot further than I ever dreamt about. It’s been a wonderful journey. The ultimate goal, whether you make it or not, [isn’t important] – not every kid is going to be president of the United States or a Supreme Court justice – but every kid can find a path and enrich him- or herself by trying. So I think it’s the process. For the lawyers in this room who look at my jurisprudence and try to figure it out, a lot of the academics will tell you, even in my jurisprudence, process is really important.
MAGILL: I was wondering if you could talk a little about your mother, your father and your grandmother.
SOTOMAYOR: During the confirmation process, people were asking me all sorts of questions about my father and I realized that I knew so little about him and his background. It was sort of a wake-up call. I knew what I describe in the book: his alcoholism. I knew his mother and his family because his mother was my closest friend, the love of my life. In fact, during the confirmation process, my mother said at the end of it, “Sonia, they talked a lot about me and even my sister and a lot of your other relatives, but nobody’s talked about your grandmother.... She was the most important person in your life.” So it was time to show grandmother off. But as I started to think about a book, I also realized that I hadn’t spent enough time with my aging family. All of my aunts are in their 80s; an uncle who was near 95 died two or three months after I interviewed him; and my mother is 85 and has a fading memory. I understood that I didn’t have time to wait five more years to turn to this book. So I made up time to write it.
I found out a story about my familythat is so precious to me. I found a [version of my] father I never knew and a romance between my mother and my father that I’d never heard. You have no idea how special that is for someone who had lived her whole life thinking of her parents as unhappy; it sort of gave me a thrill to know I had been wrong. I tell every audience I talk to: If you are lucky enough to have a living parent, grandparent, aunt or uncle who knows about your family’s background, explore it while you have a chance. Don’t wait. Don’t do what I did, which was to live a very busy life and forget that my story wasn’t the center of the universe. It is important for all of us to appreciate where we come from and how that history has really shaped us in ways that we might not always understand unless we ask. And the asking is really just asking, “Tell me your story, and then tell me why the story happened, put it in context, and tell me how you felt at the time.” That can be the most revealing of all information – how did they feel?
MAGILL: Why do you think you were able to get to the bench and become a Supreme Court justice?
SOTOMAYOR: I don’t think any child has an opportunity to succeed unless they find someone in their life who unconditionally loves them and makes them feel secure about that love. Given my childhood experiences at home, it wasn’t coming immediately from my mother or my father, but I had a grandmother who gave it to me. Now, I’m very cognizant that there are some kids who don’t have any of that. What I try to talk to them about in the book is not waiting for that person to appear in your life, but having the courage to look around you, to find someone you admire whose ways of doing things you really want to learn from, and go up to that person and tell them, “I need to learn what you do so well.” Or it can be as simple as taking your high school essay when you’re applying to college and asking a teacher to review it – I wrote mine without even thinking that it was a possibility, and it’s true, you might find some teachers who are not helpful, but most of them are. Or you can go to your church or whatever place you worship in and look around; you can go to your community center; or you can look in your extended group of family and friends. There is always someone in your life whom you can admire, and it takes you being brave to say, “I need help” or “I don’t know.”
The second thing [that helped me] is a characteristic that kids are told is very bad: being stubborn. My mom says it was my brother, but I remember it being me: When I was a baby, when I didn’t want to eat, I would hold my breath and bunch up my cheeks and Mom would [force me to open my mouth] and stuff the spoon in. To this day, that’s why I have this yo-yo weight problem. But she’s taken responsibility. It’s just that I like food. I showed that stubbornness even as a kid.
I talk in the book about defending my brother on the playground. What I don’t talk too much about, but it was true, [is though] I may have beaten up some people, I got beaten up a lot, because I would never cry uncle. It’s the same thing that I’ve never done when I’ve met a challenge in school or on a job. I’ve talked about my insecurities, and they run deep, but I’ve learned to not give up, just to get up and, even when I fail, to lick my wounds and to have friends around me who help me do that. After they think I’ve wallowed in self-pity long enough, [these friends] kick my behind and tell me to go try again. I tell kids that all the time: Find the friends who do that. Find the friends who never tell you that you can’t do it, but who point you in the right direction, hold you when you fail, and push you when you need the push. Those are hard friends to value sometimes, but they are the best of friends. I was lucky to have a lot of them in my life.
MAGILL: Can we talk a little about your time at Princeton? Did it feel to you like you’d landed on Mars a little bit? How did you make your way there?
SOTOMAYOR: I was way out there. I truly was an alien. It was so foreign to me – everything. That first week was a shock to me. [There were] kids from all over the world, kids with different accents, like the Alabama accent, like a classmate who sat next to me as we were registering for classes, and two of my friends were walking toward us and speaking Spanish, and she gushed in saying, “Isn’t Princeton wonderful – there are such wonderful mixed and strange people here!” I remember looking at her and listening to her accent and thinking to myself, “Here I thought you were the strange one.” I was a kid from the South Bronx, essentially the projects. [Mine] was a relatively insular world; it was a slice of New York.
[Princeton] was my first time meeting people from other parts of the country and with other experiences. It’s very hard to feel a part of something that’s so alien to you. It takes a while to grow comfortable enough within yourself to appreciate that you might be different, but it’s OK because your difference enriches you in a different way, just like [other people] are enriched in the way they chose or the life they led. But that takes a whole lot for a kid who feels inadequate to come to. So part of [my message] is to encourage kids, as I do for all of my cousins: Please go away to college. No matter how afraid you are of leaving home, pick yourself up and go; have the experience.
MAGILL: In the book you recount several instances when you experienced what I perceive to be overt hostility from those who believed you were wrongly benefiting from affirmative action. Do you feel comfortable reflecting on these experiences and how they’ve shaped your view of affirmative action?
SOTOMAYOR: Affirmative action back [when I went to college], and today, [was and] is a double-edged sword. It’s the subject of much continuing conversation in our society and I won’t talk [in depth] about it today, because everybody knows we have a case pending and that case will be judged on its own merits. We’ve had lots of Supreme Court cases since I got into college and law school, and the conversation in society has changed. But at that time – and people forget – the civil rights movement had just really started. Princeton had only admitted women for two years before I got there. The number of minorities [at these colleges] was so small that you could probably count them on two hands, before places like Princeton and Yale began to think more deeply about the structure of their selection processes, [taking into account an] understanding that people are different than their backgrounds and that not everyone experiences the privilege of living in a way to master the criteria that others are taught to seek early in life.
I was one of those kids; I was pretty smart; I was near the top of my class, but I worked weekends; I worked during the summers; I was in student government; I was on the debate club. I was a highly energetic person – I hardly slept back then. I did a lot of things while still keeping up really good grades. That must have showed somebody that there was promise in me. I probably didn’t have anywhere near the top SAT scores, but schools don’t pick on numbers mostly, thank God. But I was given the chance to get to the start of the race, and it changed my life. I didn’t know a race was being run before I got there.
Part of [the goal of] this book was to make the many people who have been accused of getting in because of some special favor not to feel ashamed, but to look at whatever they’ve accomplished once they got in the door and get strength from that, which is what I’ve done. Yes, I needed help, but once I got there, I worked at it and I proved myself worthy. You don’t have to graduate the way I did at Princeton, at the top of my class; just being an average student at a place like Princeton is a pretty impressive place to get. Sometimes we just forget that, that “making it” means working really hard to take the gifts you’re given and make them count for something for yourself and for others. That’s what I’ve tried to do.
MAGILL: When I was clerking, William Rehnquist, who was chief justice at the time, said that the best job he ever had was being head of the Office of Legal Counsel. What’s the best job you’ve ever had, including the job you have now?
SOTOMAYOR: Being a justice. If you love law as much as I do, not only for how it works and organizes the social structures of our society – it’s not the only mechanism that does that; we have many, but the law is an integral part of us getting along as a community – you’re given the job of a lifetime when you’re a justice. You’re permitted to address the most important legal questions of the country, and sometimes the world, and in doing so you make a difference in people’s lives. I can’t think of a better job for someone who loves the law as much as I do.
But I can’t think of any job I haven’t loved. I’ve tried in every work setting to figure out what it is I needed to learn, even if I got a little bored with the work I was doing, or it wasn’t quite what I wanted to do long term. I did move on, for example, from the DA’s office, but it was an exciting time in my life, and I value it highly for all the things it taught me. I even liked private practice, believe it or not – young lawyers are taught that that’s not satisfying – I found it satisfying. I met some wonderful people and I learned areas of the law I might never have been exposed to otherwise. Even from the worst job you can learn something. You don’t want to stay in it too long, but you can mark your time by trying to figure out some of the good it can give you.
MAGILL: This is not a question about the substance of what the court does, it’s just a question about whether you’ll reflect on your first day on the bench of the Supreme Court, or your first conference with the justices when you decided cases. What was going though your mind, what were
SOTOMAYOR: The first case that I sat on was Citizens United. Talk about being thrown in! Needless to say, if I’d been scared before, I was terrified by then. I knew the world was waiting and watching for my first question. What I figured was, “Was I prepared for the case like I prepare for everything?” I threw myself in, drowned myself in my work. I thought about questions I should ask and then I finally decided that I couldn’t anticipate what my first question would be, because I didn’t know what the flow of the conversation would be. So I would just wait. After it got out, I thanked God because it took the pressure off of me and I could just be, or start becoming, a justice.
[From] the conferences the first year, the most overriding memory is constantly feeling like I’d walked into a conversation – because I had. We’d be discussing a case and one of my colleagues would mention a case that I had not read for the issue before us because I didn’t anticipate that it might be relevant – “Just as I told you guys in this case…” and he or she would go off on a tangent that made no sense to me, until one of my colleagues would lean over and say, “Sonia, he’s got a bug about that issue and he brings it into everything. Don’t worry.” Or they’d pick up in the middle of a conversation that started on the case before and hadn’t finished. So feeling like I was walking into a conversation was very disorienting most of the year. The only gratification I got was the next year when Elena Kagan became a justice and she leaned over and asked me what they were talking about and I had the answer.
MAGILL: You are the only member of the court who’s been a trial judge. Do you think that makes a difference?
SOTOMAYOR: Yes. I think its greatest impact may be in the cert process. I’m very sensitive to us taking cases with what we call vehicle problems, issues that might preclude us from reaching the question we really want to answer. So with almost every case that’s listed for discussion, I look for that first, in a way that some of my colleagues may or may not. I also think it’s made a difference sometimes in the cases we don’t take; my being able to explain to the others why a particular issue may seem important in that one case but leaving it in the discretion of the judges below is [also] important, by explaining the variety of situations that surround that issue where one answer might not be satisfying.
So there are various ways in which being a trial judge does help and affect the process, including being a proponent of cases that answer legal issues that might only be of interest to the judges below, and I think that I’m a champion of some of those in terms of hearing them so that we can try to give some answers. Occasionally I’m told we’ll just complicate things more, and you do learn that after a while. But whether [my trial judge experience] makes a difference in how you answer an opinion, I’m not sure yet. That’s a much more complicated question, because so many of our cases are not really centered on the trial experience. They are pure questions of law.
MAGILL: Why did you want to be a lawyer?
SOTOMAYOR: I was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes at seven and a half, and somewhere in the road of my treatment I was told that I couldn’t be, like Nancy Drew, a detective. I was heartbroken as only a dramatic child could be, because I didn’t know what I could do. Then I watched “Perry Mason,” and for those of you who are old enough to remember “Perry Mason’s” script, in the in first half [of an episode] he investigated the crime, and in the second half he was in the courtroom proving his client not guilty. Now that’s never happened in my career; no lawyer has ever broken down the guilty party in a courtroom, though some have proven their client was not guilty, through a verdict. But that investigative aspect of Perry Mason led me in a very unsophisticated way to understand that I could still be a detective by being a lawyer. That belief then morphed into a greater understanding of what lawyering meant and figuring out that I had actually stumbled onto my perfect career.
MAGILL: What is the typical workday like in the life of a Supreme Court justice?
SOTOMAYOR: For most of you, pretty boring. We only give parties an hour of argument, and we’re only hearing about 60 to 80 cases a year, so that’s only 60 or 80 hours of time that we’re in the courtroom. That’s two weeks of work, essentially. The rest of the time we’re researching, writing and editing all day long our own opinions and the opinions of our colleagues; we’re talking among ourselves in memos trying to convince each other of what is the right answer. It is a job that is, in some ways, purely desk-bound, so you have to be someone like me who has remained like I was a child: high-energy. I was called an aji, which to my family meant a hot pepper [laughter], because I never stopped jumping up and down. I still do that.
Many of us stay connected to the world because we teach, because we speak to groups. We have hundreds of thousands of people who come to the court, and the justices regularly meet with groups as young as second grade. I’ve talked to second graders – they force me to go back to presidential history because I get more questions about the president than I do about me or my job, but that they’ve heard about the Supreme Court in the second grade is a step further than [where I was at that age], because I didn’t really know it existed until much later in life. But we do stay engaged with the world because the world looks to us as beacons in many ways and we get visitors from around the world constantly. That’s how we stay involved in the world, but our work is contemplative and it’s work where you’re really thinking about the answers you’re rendering.
MAGILL: How much did you hesitate about writing about witchcraft?
SOTOMAYOR: A lot. I had a couple of friends who said to keep out those scenes, but when you read the book you understand how important it was to my grandmother and how much it was a part of my family life. I intended to make this an honest book, and I think I did. It was a part of my life and so I described it – a slice of my life. Puerto Ricans – as have people from all the Caribbean cultures – have managed to integrate very successfully their belief in brujería, which is witchcraft, and their faith in the Catholic Church. I haven’t had to do that, because my mother wouldn’t let my grandmother take me over, but it was a part of my life. Yes, I did hesitate, but I’m gratified that it hasn’t been made a big deal of in the press, because I think people understood what my purpose was in writing it. It was to underscore that everybody has a crazy uncle out there or something their family does that they think should be kept secret, and part of the book’s message is that sometimes you can see it for what it is, which is a little bit of fun.
MAGILL: What works of literature have been influential for you both during your childhood and your adult life?
SOTOMAYOR: The most important time for me in terms of book reading was after my first year of college, after finding out that I didn’t know what Alice in Wonderland was, it was the first book I picked up that summer to read. I then followed it by reading most of the classics that my roommate helped to identify for me. That opened up a world of writing that I had not much familiarity with. But I never mention one book [as most influential], because books will affect each person differently. The beauty of books is that they create what I call the “ah-ha moments”; the moments when a light bulb goes on inside your head and in which you think about something in a different way. [For example when I read] Lord of the Flies in high school, it opened up a totally different view of the world and of people and about their nature, and it helped cement why I would later find law so important. Because the fact that the young’uns in that book couldn’t do it without having inculcated a greater understanding of community was really important to me. So other works have been throughout my life. Like when I went to see a Shakespeare play, I finally understood the beauty of plays and understood that when I read them I had to imagine them. It was after seeing that play that I went back and read all of Shakespeare’s stories. Because looking at the play gave me an ah-ha moment. Just reading is important – and the openness to be challenged to read something different and to think about it. That’s what’s important about reading.
MAGILL: What has been the greatest challenge of being on the court, and why?
SOTOMAYOR: Having been a judge for 17 years before I became a justice, it’s not that you become used to making decisions, but you do understand your role and you understand that you have to make decisions because parties need answers. And because you’re not part of a court of final resort, you always take a little comfort in thinking that if you really get it wrong, there’s a court above you that can fix what you’ve done wrong. Coming to the Supreme Court and realizing that there was no court above me added a burden I had not fully anticipated: the importance of my coming to my right answer. Understanding that others might have different views of what the answer should be doesn’t take away from the deep sense of obligation that I have to make sure I’ve not overlooked any argument, that I’ve thought about each case from every angle that I humanly can. I try my hardest to make my vote the answer I think is right, understanding always that even if I think the answer is right, there’s a losing party in every case decided by the Supreme Court. I never loose sight of that either, because it keeps you humble; you’re not God, because hopefully God is more merciful than sometimes you can be as a judge. But, more important, no matter how good an answer you think you’ve given, someone’s going to feel there’s an injustice.
MAGILL: What role did your Catholic education play in your development and your success, and how do you feel about the closing of so many Catholic schools in New York?
SOTOMAYOR: My grammar school is closing, and I cried when I heard that. Discipline was the number one priority of my grammar school education; probably it was the number one priority for most of the people here who were raised in the faith as children. But the current Catholic schools have evolved just as has the society, but I think with a more nurturing face than when I was a kid. More important for many of the neighborhoods that I was from, the current neighborhood of the place I live, it was the only alternative for safety for many of the kids in poor neighborhoods. Now the schools are closing, because their communities can’t afford to keep them open. It’s heartbreaking.
I very much believe in God. I may not go to church regularly – I still go sometimes – but I think its most lasting influence was in helping me understand that as a human being, I made a choice and the choice was whether I would be a good and giving person, or whether I would be selfish, self-absorbed and maybe evil.
We each make that choice; the church led me to understand what the beauty was in the former choice. So in many ways the person I am is a product of what I was taught by my religion. It’s not that you can’t find that path in other ways, and a lot of people do because a lot of people weren’t exposed to religion as children and they find it in other ways, but that was the way that helped me.