Watch an interactiveof the Supreme Court justice narrating her personal family photos. (Above: Sotomayor, 1959)
Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor readily concedes that she was the beneficiary of affirmative action in higher education, and she doesn’t really know why her view is so different from that of her colleague, Justice Clarence Thomas.
“As much as I know Clarence, admire him and have grown to appreciate him,” she says, “I have never ever focused on the negative of things. I always look at the positive. And I know one thing: If affirmative action opened the doors for me at Princeton, once I got in, I did the work. I proved myself worthy. So, I don’t look at how the door opened.”
Sotomayor made the remarks in an interview with NPR just before the release of her new autobiography, My Beloved World.
At Princeton, where she went to undergraduate school, there were fewer than 30 Latinos, she says, “but all of us had done spectacularly well in our high schools.” And while Sotomayor cannot explain why Thomas, the nation’s second African-American justice, feels so differently from her, she says, “I do know one thing about me: I don’t measure myself by others’ expectations or let others define my worth.”
She notes that so-called “legacy admits” at top schools — students whose parents are alumni — never question how they get into school, nor do those with sports scholarships. So, like these students, she says, she concentrated on “the benefits of education and the fact that I have taken advantage of it in a positive way.” True, she observes, youngsters who attend prep schools do better on standardized tests and usually have a leg up when they get to college. “Is that a fair advantage? No, it’s life.”
She says affirmative action, as she has seen it, is simply an attempt by schools to look “more widely” for minority students and those from poor families who have the ability to “master the environment” of a highly competitive college or university. It’s the kind of student you might find at Cardinal Spellman High School, her alma mater, in the Bronx.
‘Don’t Mistake Politeness For Lack Of Strength’
Once at Princeton, Sotomayor struggled mightily at first, in part because she didn’t know how to write well in her second language, English. She embarked on a crash program in her first summer, eventually became a star student and graduated summa cum laude, winning Princeton’s coveted Moses Taylor Pyne Honor Prize.
It was only when she was close to graduating from Yale Law School several years later that she encountered the kind of stereotyping that Justice Thomas has often written about. At a recruiting dinner, a partner in a large Washington, D.C., firm looked at her and asked, “Did you get into Yale only because you are Puerto Rican?”
She was stunned.
“It took me aback to think that someone was actually looking at me that way,” she says, noting that the man apparently knew nothing about her academic successes.
“Now that’s the price of affirmative action that Clarence Thomas talks about … and it’s one that can lead to the sense that the benefits might be outweighed by the negative impressions it leaves. But that was my first moment experiencing that kind of overt discrimination.”
She did not take the stereotyping lying down. She confronted the man the next day, amazed when he seemed to think she had not cared since she did not “make a scene.” She viewed the emotional reaction he expected as simply another stereotype — the emotional Latina.
Instead, she told the recruiter, “I’m much more polite than that, but don’t mistake politeness for lack of strength.”
Indeed, she filed a complaint over the matter, but rather than seek to bar the firm from further recruiting, she accepted a written apology.
Love And Family
Unlike most books by Supreme Court justices, My Beloved World is almost entirely personal and unexpectedly candid. Sotomayor describes her father’s alcoholism and its effects on the family, as well as her mother’s emotional chilliness and the long road to mutual understanding, warmth and forgiveness between the two.
She is equally candid about her five-year marriage and amicable divorce from her high-school sweetheart, Kevin Noonan. Neither of them, she says, was really prepared for marriage. So did she ever think of just living with him?
“Never,” she tells NPR. “Oh my God, I am a Catholic Puerto Rican. Do you think my family would ever have tolerated us living together? As independent as I am, I was not going to be thrown out of my family.”
She has been single ever since the divorce. Yes, she concedes. “I would like to be in a couple again.” But, “it’s a little hard right now, being a Supreme Court justice. First, I have to master this job a little bit more.” And as much as she would like to be in a relationship, she thinks it important that girls and women not expect marriage to define their happiness.
Diabetes And Kicking A Habit
Sotomayor also talks openly about her diabetes, a few near-death experiences and how “I spent a good portion of my life hiding my disease.” She has talked about it since becoming a justice, in part to make people understand how important it is not to hide the disease, so that when something goes wrong, friends know what to do.
When she was first diagnosed as a child, she recalls, having diabetes meant you weren’t going to live to old age or even middle age. That is no longer true, she observes, adding that diabetes “is really a fundamental part of me. It’s part of my body; it’s part of everything I do all day long — exercising, eating, stopping internally for a moment to check where my blood sugars are.”
She also describes her addiction to cigarettes and how she spent five days in a residential treatment facility to kick the habit. In the NPR interview, Sotomayor confesses that she once made her longtime secretary swear to help her fulfill her last wish: “The day I’m dying, your last job for me is to buy a carton of cigarettes and light one up after the other,” she told her.
Indeed, the justice laughingly recalls that in the first year after she gave up smoking, she found herself driving behind an SUV whose driver was holding a cigarette out the window. “I followed him three blocks out of my way … smoking the secondhand smoke,” she says.
Becoming A Justice
Sotomayor’s account of her professional career — in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, then in private practice and then, for 17 years, as a federal district and appeals court judge — is more publicly known than the rest of her life. She declines to talk about what went on behind the scenes during the nomination and confirmation process prior to her swearing in as a Supreme Court justice, but she does talk about the day her nomination was announced in the East Room of the White House.
Walking down the corridor with the long-legged President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, she couldn’t keep pace. “And I whispered, ‘Please,’” she tells NPR. “And they turned around and looked at me, and I said, ‘I can’t walk that fast’ … and they smiled. And the moment they smiled … I had an out-of-body experience. It was as if my emotions were so big that if I continued to let them exist in my body, I would stop functioning.”
So she “banished” her emotions, as she puts it, to some place “over my head.” That, she says, is the way she survived the first year and a half — the nomination, the confirmation process, the inductions, throwing out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium. All, she says, “were moments I will treasure forever. But at those moments I couldn’t let the emotion overcome me. Otherwise I wouldn’t be able to survive.”
Sotomayor is said to have earned a $1.2 million advance for her memoir, an amount that reportedly has allowed her to buy an apartment in Washington and pay back some debts.
She says she decided to “tell the truth” about her life, warts and all, to inspire other “ordinary people.” Role models on TV are “fantasized,” she says, “but I think it’s important to move people beyond just dreaming into doing. They have to be able to see that you are just like them and you made it.”