It is a well-worn cliché to say that judges are lonely people. They often have few close friends. They must be guardedly circumspect in their social interactions. They no longer get invited to the fun parties. Everyone is a potential litigant, lawyer, witness, or juror who sooner or later will appear in their courtroom.
This is true even in the U.S. Supreme Court, where there are no witnesses or juries. But once-married and now-divorced Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor is no Miss Lonelyhearts.
Unlike some of her colleagues who have written solipsistic personal accounts or dry, turgid treatises on constitutional and statutory interpretation, Justice Sotomayor has written a refreshingly candid and heartfelt memoir that focuses mostly on the arc of her triumphant personal journey and career path.
By now most know that Justice Sotomayor is the nation’s first Hispanic appointee to the high court — and its third woman member — but only readers of her recent book, “My Beloved World,” know the richness and texture of how she came from a modest upbringing in a Bronx housing project to the rarefied air of college at Princeton, Yale Law School, and all three levels of the federal judiciary.
A strong-willed woman of Puerto Rican heritage, Sotomayor writes with a passion and flavor that invests the reader in the outcome. She has bought in to the “American Dream” without selling out. Sotomayor has undeniably made it her own. Unlike her fellow justice, Clarence Thomas, she is not bitter about her experience, as shown in how she does not bemoan affirmative action as being patriarchal or condescending: “If affirmative action opened the doors for me at Princeton, once I got in, I did the work. I proved myself worthy.”
Between the bookends of her humble beginnings and her lifetime tenure on the Supreme Court lies one of the more captivating stories in recent American public life. A juvenile diabetic who loved televised courtroom dramas and competing in extemporaneous speaking competitions in Forensics Club, and later as a compulsive cigarette smoker who eventually kicked the habit, Sonia Sotomayor learned to strive for and achieve a better life for herself. She embodies what most would loosely term the American Dream — a rags-to-riches epic of success over failure, achievement over struggle, persistence over hardship, etc. Not here. As usual, the real story is better than make-believe. And, like the best of all stories, the essence and delight is in the telling.
As a practicing lawyer, I could identify with the travails of her college and law school anecdotes, although her being only one of few Latinas at Ivy League institutions in the late 1970s and early 1980s certainly made her experiences far from predictable.
The more fascinating aspects of Sonia Sotomayor’s personal journey are when she writes openly and honestly about the first time she conducted voir dire (picking a jury) as a novice deputy district attorney in New York, and when she fumbled as a trial lawyer in open court, and how she relished making partner at her law firm at a tender age, and how she was nominated as a federal trial judge before she was 40. Whip-smart and tenacious, she has earned a reputation as one of the country’s most thoughtful and nuanced but also pragmatic jurists.
But even those crowning accomplishments fail to capture the grittiness and realness of this particular American life. Sotomayor has done what few other public figures, whether they be politicians or celebrities, seem capable of doing: writing a book that we want to keep reading.
“My Beloved World” calls to mind what President Barack Obama, a former constitutional law professor, said early in his presidency about filling vacancies on the Supreme Court: “I will seek someone who understands that justice isn’t about some abstract legal theory or footnote in a casebook. It is also about how our laws affect the daily realities of people’s lives — whether they can make a living and care for their families; whether they feel safe in their homes and welcome in their own nation. I view that quality of empathy, of understanding and identifying with people’s hopes and struggles, as an essential ingredient for arriving at just decisions and outcomes.”
Sotomayor is precisely such a person.
Like so many other “firsts” that Sonia Sotomayor has on her resume, she now has this: a Supreme Court justice’s memoir that can be read not as novelty but as a novel piece of self-creation.
Chris Bryan is an Aspen attorney and the president of the Pitkin County Bar Association