Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Making of a Wise Latina Justice

      Sonia Sotomayor notched her first courtroom victory as a prosecutor in New York City when a jury convicted a defendant in an episode stemming from an assault on his wife while riding the subway. The wife refused to testify, but the defendant was also charged with assaulting a fellow subway rider who had intervened to try to stop the beating.
      Although gratified by the jury’s guilty verdict, Sotomayor’s heart sank when the judge said he was inclined to sentence the defendant to one year in jail. The defense attorney protested that the defendant had never been in trouble before and his family depended on him for support.
      The judge then turned to Sotomayor, who — as she recounts in her insightful memoir My Beloved World — said she agreed with the defense lawyer. Jail would be a hardship for the family, Sotomayor acknowledged. Probation along with a treatment program for domestic abuse would be satisfactory. The judge went along with the recommendation.
      Three decades later, opponents of Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court in 2009 might have made something out of the case had they only known of it. Some critics labeled Sotomayor the “empathy nominee,” playing off President Obama’s listing of one of the attributes he had been looking for in a prospective justice. Sotomayor resisted the imputation. As a judge, she told the Senate Judiciary Committee, she based her decisions solely on the law.
      Sotomayor reveals in her memoir, however, that empathy is in fact a deeply ingrained trait of hers. Chronicling her life up to her appointment to the federal bench in 1992, Sotomayor makes clear that she believes her “innate skills of the heart” help explain her success in rising from a crime- and drug-ridden Puerto Rican neighborhood in the Bronx to become the first Hispanic to serve on the highest court in the land.
      “Whenever I make a new friend, my mind naturally goes to the question, what can I learn from this person?” Sotomayor writes midway through the 300-page memoir published last month [Jan. 15]. “There are very few people in the world whom you can’t learn something from . . . .” Later, she explains how she came to realize that "leveraging emotional intelligence” was important to communicating with jurors along with remembering that there is a difference between what makes sense to a lawyer and what makes sense “to a human being.”
      Sotomayor’s life parallels in some respects that of her Supreme Court colleague Clarence Thomas, who recounts in his memoir My Grandfather’s Son how he rose from poverty to become the second African American justice. But the memoirs are as different in tone as night and day. Thomas’s memoir is suffused with anger, resentment, and self-pity, not just in his account of his bitter confirmation battle but in the narrative of his childhood, adolescence and college and law school education.
      By contrast, Sotomayor is forgiving and understanding even when confronted with hardships and prejudice of the same type that Thomas encountered. Her father was an alcoholic, who drank himself to death when Sonia was only eight, but Sotomayor depicts him nevertheless as loving and attentive. Her mother was distant and often insensitive, but Sotomayor gives her credit for instilling discipline and a love of learning. And when Sotomayor is admitted to Princeton as an undergraduate, she says she felt no envy or resentment toward her wealthier and better-prepared schoolmates. Instead, Sotomayor writes, she felt “only astonishment at how much of a world there was out there and how much of it others already knew.”
      From his Yale Law School experience, Thomas has taken away a lasting resentment toward affirmative action. His degree, he wrote, bears “the taint of racial preference.” Sotomayor, by contrast, has openly called herself an “affirmative action baby” and bears her status as a badge of honor. She relates in the memoir her dinner at Yale with a law firm recruiter who asked her whether being Puerto Rican helped her get admitted. “It probably didn’t hurt,” Sotomayor replied. “But I imagine that graduating summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Princeton had something to do with it too.”
      Throughout the memoir, Sotomayor stresses discipline and perseverance as keys to her success along with confidence that she could do whatever she set out to do — just as she learned to manage her diabetes from the age of seven. Yet, unlike Thomas’s self-portrait, there is no swagger in Sotomayor’s account. Thomas wrote that it never occurred to him that he could not do the work of a Supreme Court justice. By contrast, Sotomayor writes that her knees were knocking the first time she presided over a courtroom. She used the same metaphor in a television interview to describe her first session on the Supreme Court.
      Sotomayor closes her memoir by recalling a friend’s rebuke from law school days that she never took firm stands, that she was always open to persuasion. Sotomayor takes the point that having principles is important, but wisely adds that equally important is being open to new understandings. “My highest aspiration for my work on the Court,” she writes, “is to grow in understanding beyond what I can foresee.”

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