It can sometimes be easy to forget that Supreme Court justices are people too. Despite all that power and those big black robes, the justices have been known to leap for joy, wallow in sorrow, tell jokes, and embarrass themselves in front of friends and family just like everybody else.
Perhaps our view of them as something utterly different than the rest of us is not surprising. They do not allow cameras into the court, so we cannot see them work. They are typically (if understandably) reticent during their confirmation hearings. And when they do make a public appearance or publish a book, their topics tend toward the esoteric — Supreme Court history, textual interpretation, the proper role of the judge in a democratic state.
Not so Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s new book, a memoir of her New York childhood and career as a lawyer that ends in 1992 as she ascends to the federal bench. In a refreshing conversational style (one that she admits is quite different from her judicial voice), Sotomayor tells her fascinating life story with the hope of providing “comfort, perhaps even inspiration” to others, particularly children, who face hard times. “People who live in difficult circumstances,” Sotomayor writes in her preface, “need to know that happy endings are possible.”
In a late chapter about her life as a remarkably successful prosecutor, Sotomayor explains that the key to winning jury trials is to focus on “the particulars that make a story real . . . the colors, the sounds, the smells, that lodge an image in the mind.” What’s good for the jury, it turns out, is good for the reader. Sotomayor effectively lodges images of her childhood in the reader’s mind — the “warm smell” of fresh bread at a neighborhood bodega in the Bronx, the “perfectly white” sand and clear blue water of the Puerto Rican beach where she played in the summertime, the strange voices of her relatives as they attempt to summon spirits at a party after she and her cousins are supposed to be asleep.
Though Sotomayor’s youth surely had moments of joy, it was fraught with difficulties — her family had little money; she was diagnosed with type-one diabetes when she was eight, and her alcoholic father died a year later. She describes these developments with candor and deeply felt emotion, and presents them not so much as obstacles to be overcome but givens, even gifts, that have shaped her approach to life. From her diabetes she gets a sense of “urgency” that manifests itself in 84-hour work weeks. From her dysfunctional home life she cultivated an “existential independence” that may have cost her a marriage but has indubitably contributed to her extraordinary professional success.
Sotomayor can be surprisingly funny, especially when relating fish-out-of-water moments from her early encounters with higher education. At a Harvard interview where she sees an Oriental rug and a couch not covered in plastic for the first time in her life, she sits in an “elegant, high-backed, winged throne of a chair” where she feels “as small as Lily Tomlin’s Edith Ann.” In her freshman year at Princeton, she learns that a dorm-mate plans to buy a wedding gift from a bridal registry and wonders, “What the hell is a bridal registry?” The author also goes in for self-deprecation. She speaks repeatedly of her “relentlessly negative physical self image”; indeed, the phrase “pudgy nose” appears no less than three times in the book. And there’s a mother-purchased-underwear scene when the justice was in her mid-30s that has to be read to be believed.
Readers seeking insight into Sotomayor’s judicial philosophy or her positions on hot-button issues will be largely, though not entirely, disappointed. With the constitutionality of racial preferences on the court’s docket again this term, it is refreshing to hear the views of a justice who benefitted from affirmative action and who is not Clarence Thomas. In her memoir, Sotomayor eloquently defends preferences for creating “the conditions whereby students from disadvantaged backgrounds could be brought to the starting line of a race many were unaware was even being run.”
President Obama was famously (and ludicrously) barraged with criticism for pointing to Sotomayor’s “empathy” in support of her nomination. It turns out that empathy is a major theme of the justice’s memoir. It is only when “people can’t imagine someone else’s point of view” that “things break down.” Empathy, the author explains, is a product of listening closely to the words and needs of others. But listening can lead to more than empathy. Throughout the book, Sotomayor herself benefits profoundly from listening closely to the advice of others — her beloved grandmother, the captain of her high school forensics team who urged her to apply to Princeton, her many mentors in the law. And now she too has written a book worth listening to.
Jay Wexler, professor of law at Boston University, tweets about the Supreme Court @SCOTUSHUMOR.