Sonia_Sotomayor_on_second_day_of_confirmation_hearings  Sonia Sotomayor on the second day of her Supreme Court confirmation hearings.

51csS26EoDLAt the end of her first term as a justice of the Supreme Court of the United States in 2010, Sonia Sotomayor began work on her memoir. In her best-selling My Beloved World (2013), she describes the trajectory that lifted her from a seemingly hopeless beginning as a Puerto Rican child in the Bronx public housing projects to the pinnacle of the American justice system. The brains she was born with, combined with the discipline and self-reliance she needed to stay alive as an 8-year-old who was left to manage her own diabetes, fueled her rise from the projects to the Supreme Court. Along the way, she earned a Princeton degree with highest honors, a law degree from Yale, a job as an assistant district attorney in New York City, and then a judgeship on a federal district court bench.


81mPZqxr+0LCourt reporter Joan Biskupic picks up the story where Sotomayor left off. Breaking In: The Rise of Sonia Sotomayor and the Politics of Justice is less a biography than a political history. Biskupic was intrigued by the symbiotic intersection of the rise of Latinos in America and the unlikely ascent of the Puerto Rican justice. “Sotomayor had the intelligence and perseverance to do what no other Hispanic had done,” writes Biskupic, but she also needed a constellation of factors, both strategic and fortuitous, to breach the bronze portals of the highest court of the land. Biskupic examines how America’s changing culture and demographics worked in Sotomayor’s favor, and how she used the wheeling and dealing and political strong-arming behind the nomination and confirmation of judges on the federal bench to her advantage by enlisting well-placed supporters and powerful advocacy groups.

Biskupic handily describes the political machinations involved in the process. Carlos Ortiz, former president of the Hispanic National Bar Association who worked for Hispanic appointments to the bench, notes, “Sotomayor learned to make the right connections. There is no question about that. She knew who to be in contact with, who to tell about her interests.”

She obtained the backing of both of New York’s then-senators, Republican Alphonse D’Amato and Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan. When her nomination for a spot on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals was stalled by Senate Republicans, Senator D’Amato was up for re-election and lagging in the polls. The supporters of Sotomayor, including Hispanic members of Congress and local Bronx officials, promised him the Hispanic vote in return for pressuring the Republican leadership to schedule the Senate vote. Sotomayor won confirmation by the Senate, but D’Amato lost the election to Chuck Schumer anyway.

Sotomayor’s ethnicity is central to her story. She is Puerto Rican, a member of an immigrant group that during her lifetime greatly increased its political standing and influence. But at the time she began going to school, Puerto Ricans labored with a 10 percent unemployment rate, higher than that of both blacks and whites. They completed an average of seven years in school, lower than that of any other group in New York City. Because of this, Puerto Ricans were vilified by whites, blacks, and others who were further along the path to assimilation. “The Puerto Rican problem” designated people who arrived with few skills and little or no knowledge of English, who overcrowded schools and depleted social services.

Because of this, someone like Sotomayor was automatically stigmatized. In addition, her innate extroversion was amplified by the exuberance of Latin culture, and this too was held against her, even when she became a Supreme Court justice. Her propensities for fire-engine-red nail polish, unruly hair, and “flashy” jewelry were singled out by the news media as markers of her otherness. Those comments stung. “The slights, the snickers, the silent judgments that reinforce that most crippling of thoughts: ‘I do not belong here,’” she wrote in a dissent she read from the bench. The establishment viewed her as an outsider who somehow broke the mold and would rupture the discreet fabric of the venerable Supreme Court. In places where diversity is valued, a distinct ethnicity can be a plus. But SCOTUS is such an august institution that it is difficult to introduce change. Everything is determined by tradition and precedent.

Full disclosure: Like Sotomayor, I am a Latina—not from Puerto Rico, but from Cuba. I spoke no English before I went to school; I favor bright colors, lively music, and spicy food. So I may be oversensitive in perceiving a negative tenor in the violent language describing Sotomayor’s “disruptiveness”:

barrel-ahead style. . . clashed with the usual order . . . She was not one to wait her turn . . . disrupting the norm  . . . . exuded a hurricane force . . . shattered the decorum . . .

Even the book’s title, Breaking In, suggests violence: It is necessary for the Latina to “break in” to the Anglo and Anglicized establishment. The way is barred, so she can’t “ease” or “slide”—let alone “walk”—in.

At the same time, it is true: She is different. She looks different and she acts differently from the other justices. To ignore that would be to ignore a very important part of who she is.

There are two ways to assimilate. You can elide your difference and lose yourself, or you can study the other culture in order to navigate it and find your way to where you want to go without sacrificing your identity.

It will come as no surprise that Sotomayor faces sexist criticism as well. Most of the slurs and characterizations of Sotomayor are no different from those leveled against women who dare to aspire to “a man’s job.” “Bossy,” “blunt,” “brash,” “domineering,” “disruptive” translate into “leader,” “direct,” “bold,” “authoritative, “innovative” when the subject is a man. Sotomayor recognizes this in her memoir. Told by a friend at Yale that she argued “just like a guy,” she responds that she has “always argued like a man, more noticeably in the context of those days, when an apologetic and tentative manner of speech was the norm among women.”

Guido Calabresi, formerly dean of the Yale Law School, who was on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals with Sotomayor when Obama nominated her, asserted that the criticism that she was too aggressive during oral arguments was sexism, plain and simple. He proved it with the record he kept of the questions asked by Sotomayor compared with those of the male judges. He “found her tough and demanding,” Biskupic reports, “but not beyond the norm of what lawyers and other spectators should expect from the bench. ‘She isn’t rude,’ he said, ‘but she goes after you.’”

Sotomayor gave a cogent explanation of her aggressive behavior years later, Biskupic notes. To be promoted in the felony division of the D.A.’s office, she said, “All of the first . . . people selected, myself included, were highly aggressive, very in-your-face prosecutors—because that’s the model that they all were.”

Her boisterous style upsets SCOTUS, but outside the court it demonstrates her authenticity and vulnerability, Biskupic reports. The other justices are very reserved; Sotomayor is the “people’s justice”—she connects and communicates with people. She never fails to tell them her inspiring story and the crucial role of affirmative action in making it possible. Based on her scores alone, her admission to Ivy League schools “would have been highly questionable,” she has admitted. There is no stronger advocate for affirmative action in education.

Biskupic opens the book with a scene at the end of Sotomayor’s first term on SCOTUS. The justices are seated in a room steeped in history, celebrating the end of the term. They follow the tradition that dictates that they sit while their clerks entertain them with parodies of themselves. That done, Sotomayor’s clerks cue up salsa music, Sotomayor jumps up and asks Chief Justice John Roberts to dance with her. He is very hesitant, but briefly goes along. She goes to each justice in turn, eliciting a few reluctant steps from each one.

For Biskupic, the episode is emblematic of Sotomayor’s personality, ethnicity, determination, and her effect on other people. About the party’s ending, she wrote:

…emotions were strong … and Sotomayor’s enthusiasm was catching . . .

But some people were not as amused, and the episode increased their skepticism of Justice Sotomayor. They thought she was calling too much attention to herself, revealing a self-regard that challenged more than the Court’s decorum. [Some, including a justice, said] it was just too much blurring of the lines between the clerks, who traditionally took the stage at the party, and the justices, who sat in judgment in the audience.

In an interview with National Public Radio, Biskupic wondered, “Will the same characteristics that got [Sotomayor] to the Supreme Court potentially interfere with her effectiveness with her fellow justices? When she asked them to dance, they got up. When she asks them to follow her on the law, I’m not so sure.”

Despite Biskupic’s obvious esteem for Sotomayor’s intellect, ambition, and perseverance, she harbors some doubt that Sotomayor’s “difference”—her reluctance to compromise when even the liberals disagree with her, her exuberance and flamboyance, her celebrity and her disregard of certain time-worn traditions of the court—will ultimately stand her in good stead. Biskupic compares Sotomayor with the other women justices, and Sotomayor comes up a little short. Nevertheless, Biskupic does provide a lot of evidence that attests to the justice’s abilities.

Will Sotomayor’s difference work in her favor or against her? The world is rapidly changing. Things (like gay marriage) that were unthinkable a few short years ago are now commonplace. Is it so far-fetched, then, to hope that the first “people’s” justice, one who goes where none have gone before by sharing the intimate details of her life, writing a best-seller that has garnered her millions of dollars, dropping the New Year’s Eve ball in Times Square, and appearing on Sesame Street will earn acceptance by her peers on the bench by virtue of her undeniable intellect and, yes, charm?

Only time will tell.

Start the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.