First Latina Supreme Court Justice Shares Her ‘Beloved Life’ With President Bellows
With her new memoir at the top of the best-seller lists, U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor addressed an overflow crowd of more than 1,400 at The Executives’ Club’s Women’s Leadership Breakfast in Chicago. During a breakfast appearance, the first Hispanic and third woman to serve on the high court gave brief remarks before answering questions from ABA President Laurel Bellows.
Until she became a justice, Sotomayor said she had no idea she would be thrust onto the public stage nationally and internationally. In the glare of that spotlight, she realized, “I was in danger of forgetting myself” and her humble beginnings in a Bronx tenement with an alcoholic father and a mother who spoke little English. So she wrote My Beloved Life.
She said she wrote the book to remember what she left behind and the forces that helped her along the way. “I tell my friends and my family, if I change—even an iota—from this Sonia, take the book, which is very thick, and hit me over the head with it,” she said.
Acknowledging the audience made up of mostly women, Sotomayor expressed her surprise that, even with all the progress from the women’s movement, controversy still clouds the concept of “having it all.” Sotomayor drew a rousing round of applause when she read one her favorite passages from the book:
“…as for the possibility of having it all, career and family, with no sacrifice to either, that is the myth we could do well to abandon, together with the pernicious notion that a woman who chooses one or the other is somehow deficient. To say that a stay-at-home mom has to trade her potential is no less absurd than to suggest that a woman who puts career first is somehow less of a women.”
Sotomayor said her juvenile diabetes was the reason she made the conscious decision to forgo motherhood. My definition of “true equality,” she said, “is the freedom to make the choice that fits us and not to be judged negatively for making either choice.”
During the question-and-answer session moderated by Bellows, Sotomayor said Brown v. Board of Education is the “only case that matters to everyone in this room” because “it changed the course of the world.” Sotomayor said, “A court system (that) could look at a fundamental error it had made in 1898 — Plessy v. Ferguson — and revisit that question and look at the Constitution and its words and respect them, that was a powerful lesson for me and one that was the foundation of my motivation for becoming a lawyer and a judge.”
Despite their political differences, Sotomayor said the other nine on the high court have a deep-seated respect for one another. “And that is because we understand something the public sometimes misses,” she said: “We care deeply about the Constitution, about our laws, our system of government and the courts. We disagree about what the answer should be to the various legal questions that come before us. But no one doubts the good faith of the others. And if you can come to the matter of respecting each other, it is really easy to disagree agreeably.”
On the topic of judicial independence, Sotomayor said, “We don’t always make decisions that are popular, but we can’t defend ourselves. The only people who can defend us are our own citizens.” They can do that, she said, by respecting the role of judges and what we do, recognizing that some of what we do is not popular.
She reiterated that our system is the envy of the world. “Countless countries (are) adopting the American adversarial system and aspiring to establish a rule of law,” she said.
When asked about the conflicting message women get about being too aggressive or too soft, Sotomayor noted that she considered it a compliment when one of her closest law school friends told her, “Sonia, you argue like a man.”
“The one thing I have learned is to understand that one style does not fit all situations,” she said. “You have to be who you are.”
She described how she paused on Inauguration Day to recognize how blessed she was to be administering the oath of office to Vice President Biden. “Think about what it was for me, a kid who didn’t know what the Supreme Court was,” she marveled. Who would have imagined that “a kid who couldn’t write English in college … would be No. 1 on the New York Times Best Seller list.
“And in the end, what I had hoped was that everyone who read this book would come away and say, ya know, she’s just like me. And if she can do what she’s done, I can do what I want to do.”