Telling the Whole Truth
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor is brutally honest. None of her peers or predecessors has ever revealed such personal details of life behind their rise to this nation’s most coveted legal post.
Her memoir “My Beloved World” is historic because no sitting Justice has ever exposed intimate details of their childhood, especially one involving an alcoholic father and an upbringing in a crime-ridden Bronx, NY, neighborhood.
A graduate of Princeton University and Yale Law School, she was a former prosecutor and then an appellate judge. President Barack Obama made history when he nominated Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2009. Now, Justice Sotomayor, the first Hispanic, and third woman on the U.S. Supreme Court, again breaks new ground.
She disclosed being diagnosed with diabetes and first injecting herself with insulin at the tender age of 8. Judges are intentionally closed off in order to appear objective. They maintain an image of quiet black-robed dignity. Yet, Justice Sotomayor, 59, did not lose her judicial dignity in displaying her humanity; she only enhanced it.
The power of her presence was on full display during a speech she gave to the PenAmerican Society – a conference of writers – at Cooper Union University in New York. Standing at the podium, her wavy dark hair gleaming in the stage lights, intense brown eyes scanning the audience, it was apparent her reputation for being fearless was well earned.
The Justice stood on the very stage where Abraham Lincoln delivered his famous anti-slavery speech, “Right Makes Might”, in 1859. It was on this stage Justice Sotomayor spoke of her divorce and critical diabetes-related hospitalizations.
Although prohibited from discussing any pending cases or issues that may come before the Court, she revealed herself an unabashed advocate for educational opportunity, especially for young people.
But, being a woman of color and a beneficiary of affirmative action did not mean she would automatically rule in favor of Fisher v. Texas, an affirmative action case, or Shelby County, a voting rights case. After speaking for about 20 minutes, she moved to a one-on-one interview with Henry “Skip” Gates, 63, Afro-American studies professor at Harvard University.
It was an intimate talk with several hundred mesmerized attendees, quietly listening. Henry Gates, an African-American, who once stated he held little in common with those Blacks left behind in his now deteriorated childhood neighborhood, was interviewing someone who writes about finding strength in embracing her harsh South Bronx roots.
Justice Sotomayor could have waited until after retirement to write about growing up poor, but loved, in a home where chronic illness led to an embrace of books. She risked exposing the truth of her less than perfect childhood to inspire others with imperfect childhoods to pursue their dreams.
She made herself a role model for young people navigating poor schools, public housing, dysfunctional families, and illnesses. This Justice wanted young people to know that being raised by a single mother who worked nights would not limit their dreams.
Young Sonia became a Supreme Court Justice and her brother, a medical doctor. However Justice Sotomayor does not pretend success is inevitable or easy.
Her book addresses a dilemma faced by most ambitious people from humble beginnings. Many live conflicted lives. Knowing this, Justice Sotomayor asked Gates, “How many friends are still suffering from a fractured identity?” As Gates stared, blankly, Justice Sotomayor said, with confidence, “I’d rather not be fractured. I’d rather be whole.”
Her words rejected this notion that pursuing your dreams required drowning your past. Justice Sotomayor has pitched the first ball at Yankee Stadium. She has sworn-in a Vice-President of the United States. Her book reached number one on the New York Times’ bestseller’s list.
Her life story is not perfect. But her approach to telling it could not be better.
Gloria J. Browne-Marshall, Gloria J. Browne-Marshall, an Associate Professor of Constitutional Law at John Jay College in New York City, is author of “Race, Law, and American Society: 1607 to Present” and a legal correspondent covering major trials and the U.S. Supreme Court. Twitter: @GBrowneMarshall (a revised version appeared in other media)