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US Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor successfully navigated the uncertain territories of growing up a poor, chronically ill, fatherless child in New York’s crime-ridden South Bronx.
By Kevin Uhrich
She recounts these potentially crippling hardships, as well as commensurate acts of love and devotion, in her best-selling book, “My Beloved World.”
The question is how those experiences have influenced the rulings that the now-58-year-old justice has made throughout her 21-year career on the federal bench.
The 336-page tome doesn’t give any direct answers to that question, and ends before her life on the federal bench begins. “With luck, there will be plenty of time ahead for me to continue growing and learning, many more stories to tell before I can say definitively who I am as a judge,” Sotomayor writes.
But through this literary lens, readers are given a rare opportunity to better understand some of the social and religious influences that ultimately came to shape the moral and legal values of fairness, equality and justice Sotomayor relies upon in crafting her rulings. In this well-written and equal parts heartbreaking and inspiring autobiography, Sotomayor recounts how her alcoholic dad, Juan Luis Sotomayor, died when she was 9, just more than a year after she was diagnosed in 1962 with juvenile (type 1) diabetes, a potentially deadly disease requiring sometimes dangerous and always frightening and painful injections of insulin on a daily basis.
These were especially harrowing experiences for the youngster when her well-meaning but often hung-over father would try to administer the shot with shaky hands.
“My earlier childhood, generally, was an unhappy one,” Sotomayor confides in an interview in Los Angeles, a stop on a recent book tour.
“You deal with an alcoholic father, and you deal with the early death of a parent, you deal with childhood diabetes — these are not minimal events in anyone’s life, and two of them at least are permanent; not growing up with a father and having a chronic disease that is an everyday part of life,” Sotomayor continues. “They are challenges. Both of them present lifelong what is fair to call burdens, but also opportunities — opportunities to be either kept down by them or to choose to find some good from each.”
To that end, Sotomayor paints her neighborhood in the Bronx as a world fraught with danger, but one filled with love and support coming from members of her extended Puerto Rican family: a strong-willed working mother, Celina, a nurse who was often away from home; her beloved paternal grandmother, or “Abuelita,” Mercedes, with whom Sotomayor claims a spiritual kinship; her younger brother, Junior, respected upstate New York physician Dr. Juan Sotomayor, Jr., whom she now gleefully confesses to “beating up” in their youth, but never allowing anyone else to bully the youngster; and a host of extended family members — all in their own way inspiring her to do great things.
At her mother’s insistence, Sotomayor, nicknamed “Aji,’ or “hot pepper” for, as Sotomayor writes, “my eagerness to jump headlong into any mischief.” She attended Blessed Sacrament School in the Bronx, then Cardinal Spellman High School, where she was valedictorian of her class. After that, she graduated summa cum laude from Princeton, then attended Yale Law School, where she served as an editor of the Yale Law Journal.
Following a more than four-year stint as a prosecutor with the Manhattan district attorney’s office, and after that working as a private attorney for the firm Pavia & Harcourt, Sotomayor served on the boards of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, the State of New York Mortgage Agency and the New York City Campaign Finance Board before being nominated in 1991 to the US District Court in New York by former President George H.W. Bush, confirmed the following year. Six years later, Bill Clinton tapped her for the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York, and in 2009 Sotomayor became President Barack Obama’s first lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court, and the court’s first Hispanic member.
The $1.2 million advance given to Sotomayor in July 2010 by publisher Alfred A. Knopf appears to have paid off handsomely, with “My Beloved World” reaching No. 1 on The New York Times best-seller list. Sotomayor credits and thanks her many family members for making her the person she is today. “I have always felt that the support I’ve drawn from those closest to me had made a decisive difference between success and failure,” the justice writes. “Whatever their limitations and frailties, those who raised me loved me and did the best they knew how. Of that I am sure.”
For all the accolades and recent attention to her life and career, however, Sotomayor may actually be best known on the national scene for “saving” baseball in 1995. That’s when the lifelong Yankees fan, ruling as a US District Court judge, came down on the side of the players in Major League Baseball’s attempts to circumvent the player association’s collective bargaining agreement and hire replacement players, thus ending a nearly seven-month long strike. Sotomayor admits that she sometimes has to pinch herself to make sure she isn’t dreaming. “I’ve been on such an improbable journey, just each time it gets better and better,” she says of that week’s historic events. “The Supreme Court, who would have ever imagined that? Equally as improbable, probably more improbable, making No. 1 on The New York Times book list. For a kid who had to teach herself how to write in college, that is a dream.”
In a brief but wide-ranging one-on-one interview conducted in her suite at the Mondrian Hotel in West Hollywood, Sotomayor talks not only about the influence the Catholic Church has had on her life, but also her reputation as a judicial activist, the popular perception of an ideologically divided court (a characterization that she insists is not accurate), and what being the first Hispanic and third woman appointed to the court really means, both to the nation and to her.
Congratulations on the book.
It’s the first time I had tried something that wasn’t legal. And it was such a joy to find that I could actually discover my literary side, not my legal side. And, as I do all things, I didn’t do it alone. I did it with the help of a lot of people, and it was wonderful to learn a new skill.
What was going through your mind as you were swearing in the vice president?
I walked out with my colleagues, and I understand from the news that the president, as he was leaving the platform, turned around … and said, ‘This will be my last time.’ In juxtaposition, this was my first time, and I as I walked out and looked over the expanse of the National Mall, my breath just stopped. It was as though I couldn’t breathe, to see that many people assembled to participate in a national moment. It just sent a chill through me. And as I sat down, it became a surreal moment, and I have had many of them over the past few years …
And had to learn English as a child …
And had to learn English when she was younger. That was a dream that I didn’t think was in the realm, not of possibility, but wasn’t even an option, not in my wildest fantasies.
What role do you think these experiences in your life play in your decision-making on the Supreme Court?
Every judge, every single one of us, comes with our own set of life experiences. When we pick judges, whoever that picking authority may be is looking at the professional experiences: Have you been a prosecutor? Have you been a defense attorney? What type of law have you practiced? Have you had government service or not, and in what form?
There is a belief that if you had a very professional experience, that it brings value to the process of judging. But that’s no different than life experience, because the professional experience is interwoven with the life experience. If you are a judge who has worked in a state system, and you know the challenges that states are having to meet budgets, to structure processes that can deal with overwhelming numbers of cases, then you are going to be a judge who, when you think about a legal issue that’s before you challenging a state process, you are going to look at that question and not make your decision based on that, because that’s sort of like imposing your own personal experience as an outcome determinate. That’s not going to convince anybody.
I write an opinion that says, ‘I know the answer because I experienced X, Y, or Z.’ No one is going to be persuaded. You’re not going to convince anybody that that answer is law, or what law commands. And no one is going to be convinced enough to follow whatever it is that you dictate the state has to do, or not do.
But it gives you an opportunity to understand what the state’s argument means, to make sure that it is part of the discussion, and part of the consideration among the justices about what makes sense legally in terms of what you are doing. It is so hard to explain to the public, who really only look at what judges do as a bottom line. … They don’t understand that it’s not the decision alone that you are judging. It’s the process: How have the judges dealt with the argument? Did they miss it? Did they hear it? Did they at least try to account for it in explaining why they are doing X or Y? That’s how I think life experiences make a difference.
Supreme Court justices are said to fall into one of two camps: Originalists, or those who derive literal meaning from the words of the Constitution, and judicial activists, or activist judges, which is how you’ve been described (the justice laughs). How would you describe your style of reasoning?
I’m a common law judge. I believe in deciding every case on its facts, not on a legal philosophy. And I believe in deciding each case in the most limited way possible, because common law judges have a firm belief that the best development of the law is the one that lets society show you the next step, and that next step is in the new facts that each case presents. So I don’t know what people mean by ‘judicial activism.’ But if you read my decisions and read the decisions, as opposed to the outcomes, and not judging the outcomes, but judging the reasoning, you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about. I’m talking about [the fact that] every one of my decisions looks at the facts of the case and tries to decide as narrowly as we can to answer the question presented. … I loathe these large pronouncements about cases that are not before us, and issues that are not before us, because I want to wait for those to develop. I am a common law judge — case by case, issue by issue.
You were raised Catholic, attended Catholic school. Doing a little research, I found that Clarence Thomas is Catholic, as are Justices Scalia, Alito, and I’m not sure about Kennedy, but I can guess …
He is. It’s 6 to 3.
I did not know that. So how has that experience, growing up Catholic, shaped your attitudes on such issues as capital punishment, abortion rights and same-sex marriage?
(Pause) … I know how it shaped me as a person. … I think being a Catholic made me a better person. It taught me how to choose good over evil, and how to be a more caring human being. I don’t think it has translated into choices that I have made as a judge, because those are controlled by law. As a Catholic, you can have two views on capital punishment. You can think, let Caesar do what Caesar needs to do, and the law says you can impose capital punishment, so you impose it. You can [also] be a Catholic who says we can’t kill, we can’t kill babies and we can’t kill adults. If you let a decision be driven by your personal views, then you are not doing what a judge needs to do, which is enforce the laws of the society that you are in. But you can control your own behavior, and that is the choice that the church and God gives us — what kind of people are we going to be.
The court has been perceived to be divided, at least on a number of cases, the Affordable Care Act is one, Citizens United is another. Is the court more ideological now? Do you believe it is ideologically divided?
No. I think if you step away from our decision-making you will see the justices crossing whatever the public thinks their ideological lines are. Frankly, the reality is that I think the public has chosen to identify themselves with certain judicial approaches, and they almost believe that we follow them instead of them following the court and the court’s view of how to address issues, and it becomes quite interesting for me to watch, because I don’t see us doing what the public does, which is [asking], ‘What kind of candidate do I want to be?’ No justice thinks of him or herself in that way. They approach each case with a view of what they think is best and what the Constitution means, and how it can best be given effect. Obviously, you have nine men and women, each equally passionate about the work they do. That’s why you have nine; to ensure every viewpoint is expressed.
What do you see as the major benefit to the nation and the court with your appointment as the first Hispanic and the third of four women to the court?
(Long pause) … I hesitate, because I don’t see my appointment as a benefit. I think others may perceive it that way …
To the nation, not just to the court …
Yes, yes, to the nation …
Don’t you see some symbolic value?
What I am trying to say is why do you think people take comfort in a judicial system? I think it is because they believe they are being judged, whether by juries or judges who are members of their society. I believe there is some comfort for people when they can look at a Supreme Court that is diverse. Diverse, just not in ethnic backgrounds and religious and [experiential] backgrounds, because I think it does give comfort in the process of judging when people can say I am being judged by my equals. To the extent that there have been large portions of our population as large as the Latino community, but people who have been migrants, people who have chronic diseases, people who have had backgrounds similar to mine, I think that brings them some sense of being part of the process and not an outsider looking in.
You speak in the book about accomplishing a lot of things that were only possible by taking small steps at a time. What do you mean by that and how have you applied that in your approach as a justice?
I’ll give you one tiny example. I think, but haven’t tracked it completely, that in my first couple of years on the bench, the number of pages that I wrote in opinions were much longer than ones I am writing now. I’ve been slowly learning how to be more concise and get to the point faster. Even something as small as that; sort of step by step, crafting and learning how to craft shorter and more powerful pieces. It is not something that comes automatically. That’s something, I think, you work at.
So, I’ve been working at that, and I think if anyone bothers tracking that, they will see an improvement in that score. Not quite yet, but I’m beginning to be exposed in my cases to almost all the major constitutional questions that the court faces. There are new issues each day. The Affordable Care Act was a totally new issue for the court, but the principles underlying it had been rehearsed in prior cases I had been on. I think in another couple of years, I will have touched on almost all of the major constitutional areas. My very case was First Amendment, Citizens United, so I got baptized really quickly.
My point is, although I had dealt with almost all of these areas as a court of appeals judge, most of my cases were applying principles that had been firmly established over the years. … Now I’m dealing with knowing what the cutting-edge question are, and I think that I’m close to having touched on every one of them. So it’s a process of educating yourself. Each case that comes about, I have to go back and read all the major decisions again, because I’m looking at them in a new way. I’m looking at them for how other justices thought the best approaches to these issues were, selecting among their approaches and tweaking them to fit what I think makes the most sense in addressing the question in the way I think that precedence demands and the way the law guides you. But I have to find that way. None of court cases are black and white.
If you had some advice for that young Latino kid who’s just getting through school and thinking of quitting, or a young single mother who doesn’t know where to turn, what would you tell those young people?
Don’t let fear stop you. Don’t give up because you are paralyzed by insecurity or overwhelmed by the odds, because in giving up, you give up hope. Understand that failure is a process in life, that only in trying can you enrich yourself and have the possibility of moving forward. The greatest obstacle in life is fear and giving up because of it.
Kevin Uhrich is the editor of Pasadena Weekly.