Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s open-book life has been a story of overcoming challenges, from an underprivileged upbringing in the Bronx to struggles against perceived discrimination to a mammoth battle against a mischievous cricket outside her Princeton dorm-room window.
Thanks to her prolific writing and speechmaking, all of which she had to submit to the Senate Judiciary Committee as she awaits hearings on her Supreme Court nomination, every detail is there for senators to read, down to her days wearing a bulletproof vest while she was on the clock for the Manhattan district attorney’s office and to her teenage dating strategy — when she and a cousin fended off each other’s parents.
What emerges from the judge’s very personal speaking and writing is a portrait of a woman who grew up in what she calls the “cocoon” of the Puerto Rican enclave of the Bronx, who faced serious self-doubts about whether she was up for the grueling educational path she had chosen and who is consumed with melding her Latina identity with the role assigned her as a high-level federal judge.
“I have spent my years since Princeton — while at law school and in my various professional jobs — not feeling completely a part of any of the worlds I inhabit,” she said in a 2002 speech, contrasting her impoverished upbringing in a South Bronx housing project with her “lovely apartment in a yuppie neighborhood of Manhattan.”
“I have worked in job environments that have been challenging, stimulating and engrossing, but none of them are controlled by Latinos. As accomplished as I have been in my professional settings, I am always looking over my shoulder wondering if I measure up and always concerned that I have to work harder to succeed.”
Even in today’s voyeuristic political world, Judge Sotomayor’s openness and inclination to self-examination may set a new record for Supreme Court picks, and it contrasts starkly with material on past nominees, such as Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. or Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., for whom reporters culled boxes of documents and opinions looking for humanizing details.
“That’s what surprised me was just about how open she was about all these issues,” said Barbara Perry, a professor and Supreme Court scholar at Sweet Briar College, who said that as a Hispanic female, Judge Sotomayor has had a much greater incentive to talk about her personal story.
“She is this ethnic minority and woman — because you’re not the default setting, you’re not the white-male setting — you don’t see Roberts and Alito going out anytime in your life and talking about what it means to be a white male,” Ms. Perry said.
Given that identity, Judge Sotomayor made the perfect guest speaker during Hispanic heritage celebrations, particularly for lawyers or law enforcement groups. Yet she wasn’t always certain of law — she says her first, inauspicious introduction to courts was through the arrest of family members. Still, early on, she says, her love of the courtroom drama in Perry Mason episodes made her want to be a judge.
She hints at her early jobs, including busting counterfeiters in New York’s Chinatown and cruising around the Shea Stadium parking lot on motorcycles chasing intellectual-property pirates’ vans.
Among the host of other personal tidbits: She was one of the first in her extended family to graduate high school, much less go to college; she didn’t like tacos until she met Dolores, her Mexican roommate at Princeton; she got a C on her first college midterm paper and had to relearn writing, in particular to lose some of the practices that came from speaking Spanish. She never raised her hand to be called on in class during her first year of law school at Yale, and only finally in her second-year class on trust and estate law did she finally venture to speak up. Though slight of stature, she was her social group’s best bouncer at Yale, screening out the neighborhood locals who tried to crash parties at a campus pub known as the Gypsy Bar. She didn’t want to fill out the application to become a federal judge, but a managing partner of her law firm insisted, took away her work and assigned her a paralegal and his own secretary to complete the application form.
As a child, Judge Sotomayor attended St. Athanasius Church and worked at United Bargains, a clothing store, the summer she turned 15, then at Prospect Hospital during her junior and senior years in high school and summers in her early years at college.
The details may seem trifling, but they paint a picture of someone who is still coming to terms with her identity and what it means for her professionally.
She also gives glimpses into her romantic life, including talking about her husband, from whom she is divorced; her one-time fiance; and that early-years dating strategy when she and her cousin “protected each other from our parents when we first went out dating as teenagers.”
Her first husband was a critical figure in her battle against the Princeton cricket. She said she spent every night of the first week she was at Princeton turning her dorm room upside down, trying to track down, with no success, the noisy cricket that was keeping her awake.
“I didn’t even know what one looked like except that I had seen [Jiminy Cricket] in Pinocchio and figured it had to have long legs,” she said.
After a week, her then-boyfriend and future husband came to visit and explained that the cricket was on a tree outside her window.
“This was all new to me: we didn’t have trees brushing up against windows in the South Bronx or in the projects in which I was raised,” she said. “We also didn’t know about prep schools then, or take skiing trips, tennis lessons or European vacations in the South Bronx. Except visits to my family in Puerto Rico, I had barely traveled outside the Bronx.”
That upbringing returns repeatedly, with Judge Sotomayor talking about having to play catch-up with those around her: “I spent my summers at Princeton doing things most of my other classmates took for granted. I spent one summer vacation reading children’s classics that I had missed in my prior education — books like ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ ‘Huckleberry Finn,’ and ‘Pride and Prejudice.’ My parents spoke Spanish, they didn’t know about these books. I spent two other summers teaching myself anew how to write.”
Given that background, it’s not surprising she was the speaker of choice for legal groups during Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs from Sept. 15 through Oct. 15. The week found Judge Sotomayor regularly addressing schools, legal professionals and even correctional officers associations.
Much like political candidates who deliver variations of the same speech for weeks, Judge Sotomayor would establish a theme in one speech, then expand and build on it in later speeches.
Readers can see the genesis of her ideas, including the now-famous line about a “wise Latina” coming to a “better” conclusion than a white male. The line started out in the early 1990s simply as a comment on gender, and the ethnic aspect was not to be found.
They also can see her edit herself. The first time she delivered what would become her standard Hispanic-heritage speech, she listed her favorite foods with their Spanish names. Just two months later, she gave the same speech, only this time including the English translations for morcilla (pig intestines), patitas de cerdo con garbanzos (pigs’ feet and beans), and la lengua y orejas del cuchfrito (pig tongue and ears).
Republicans say the record is overwhelming, but the White House has made a virtue of the number of speeches Judge Sotomayor has that are publicly available.
Even as he tells voters to judge her “by her extraordinary record” on the bench, White House lawyer Greg Craig said in a blog posting that those looking for a good picture of the judge can get it through her speeches and writings submitted to the Judiciary Committee.
“Since her college days, Judge Sotomayor has been an active speaker and prolific writer on some of the greatest issues of our time, including the roles of race and gender in our society and in our courts,” Mr. Craig wrote. “In the text of speeches Sotomayor delivered from Buffalo to Brooklyn and from Princeton to Yale, you will get to know an inspiring woman with an incredible legal mind who will make a great Supreme Court justice.”
It’s easy to see why President Obama, who said he wanted empathy to be a core quality of his nominee, gravitated to Judge Sotomayor. At one point, she clearly said that her definition of “better” conclusions meant “a more compassionate, and caring conclusion.”
Judge Sotomayor even can be heard on podcast as the moderator of a Federalist Society panel discussion on confirmation battles from Feb. 28 - though she lets the panelists say the provocative things while she keeps strictly to the duties of moderator.
“We are concerned about the fact that you have failed to provide a draft, video or transcript for more than half of your speeches, remarks, lectures, etc.,” they wrote in a letter last week demanding better compliance.
Of the 191 speeches or remarks she said she has given, she could provide video or text for just 81. For eight more, she provided news clippings of press coverage of her remarks; for two, she cross-referenced another, similar speech; for one, she asserted it was a standard speech; and for the other 98, she said she had no records.
By contrast, Justice Alito listed just 51 speeches and Chief Justice Roberts listed a few more than two dozen speeches. While Justice Alito had draft copies of many of his speeches, Chief Justice Roberts did not, for the simple reason that “on no occasion did I speak from a prepared text.”
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