In promoting her memoir, My Beloved World, since early last year, Justice Sonia Sotomayor has led “60 Minutes” on a tour around the Bronx public housing projects where she grew up, appeared with the late-night hosts Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, and sat down with the ladies of “The View.”  Bookstore appearances and similar events have taken her from New York City to Puerto Rico to San Francisco.

On Monday afternoon, Justice Sotomayor only had to walk a few steps from her chambers to the courtroom, where she was the guest speaker for the annual meeting of the Supreme Court Historical Society.

There, before a packed crowd, she promoted her book by largely discussing a topic it does not cover:  her transition to the Supreme Court in 2009.

“When I got here, and was really wrenched from my life in New York, which I loved and work which I absolutely adored, and catapulted not just onto a national stage but a world stage, I realized that my life was changing in a really fundamental way,” Justice Sotomayor said. “The anxiety of that change was making me want to stop and really take hold of what my life had been.”

This led to her well-received book, in which Justice Sotomayor candidly tells of her juvenile diabetes, her father’s alcoholism, her frosty relationship with her mother, but also the vibrant life of her extended family and her path to Princeton, Yale Law School, and into a life in the law.

Perhaps because the book has been out for more than a year, Justice Sotomayor mostly talked around its rich vein of memories from her childhood and younger years.

The first year on the Court can be full of anxiety, she said, something that Justices such as David H. Souter (whom she succeeded) and Stephen G. Breyer told her that they had suffered as well.  So even as she was still acclimating herself to her new job, she threw herself into writing the book as well, she said.

“I wanted to hold on to who ‘Sonia’ is on the inside, in the hopes that if I change in this job, it won’t be for the worse,” she said. “I told all my dearest friends, ‘If I ever get conceited, take this big book I wrote and hit me over the head with it.’”

Justice Sotomayor said she sometimes felt like an outsider among her colleagues, both because of their tenure on the Court and their differing backgrounds. When the Justices gather for their in-house lunches, some make joking references to TV shows of the 1950s and 60s that she had never watched. Such moments remind her of her days as an undergraduate at Princeton, where she at first felt like an “alien,” especially when her fellow students mentioned things like a wedding registry.

“I didn’t know what a wedding registry was,” she said, because in her extended Puerto Rican family, “we gave cash.”

She said the one thing she wished she had known upon joining the Court was that she was “walking into an existing conversation.” She told of how during her early conferences — the Justices’ private sessions to discuss cases — she sometimes felt lost as one or more of her colleagues went on with some degree of fervor about particular issues.

But as the junior Justice, she had to wait her turn to speak, even to ask what the fervor was all about. But soon Justice Breyer or Justice John Paul Stevens would lean towards her, she said and say of the unnamed colleague, “He’s been caught up on this issue forever.”

In 2010, Justice Elena Kagan succeeded Stevens and Sotomayor was no longer the junior Justice.

“I do remember the day it happened to Justice Kagan,” Sotomayor said of the idea of feeling left out of a long-running conversation. “I leaned over and said to her, ‘I’ll explain it more when we’re done here, but here’s the bottom line.”

As she has at other appearances, Justice Sotomayor wore a wireless microphone so she could move about the room as she spoke.  When the moderator read a question (which were submitted in advance), the Justice sought out the questioner, whom she greeted for a few moments and posed for a picture by the Court’s photographer.

Asked about the role of her background as a federal district judge in New York (before she was elevated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit), Justice Sotomayor said it drove an intense focus on the facts of a case, both at the petition and merits stage, including at oral arguments.

“If you read the reports of the Supreme Court reporters, you’ll learn that all my colleagues, and them, get annoyed by all the factual questions I ask,” she said. “That is very much the price of having been a trial lawyer and a trial judge. I grew up in an environment where don’t announce the law, you develop the record and you develop facts.”

“My preoccupation, as some have called it, with facts is reflected in my opinions,” she added. “I’m probably the Justice who talks about the facts more than most. I do it because I think they’re important to how you shape the law.”

Even as the hour was coming to a close, Justice Sotomayor told the moderator she had time for another question. She was asked about Puerto Rico, which plays a key role in her memoir as a home to some of her relatives and as an essential part of the character of those who had long ago migrated to New York City.

The justice went on for some ten more minutes about the island’s status as a U.S. commonwealth, its high voter turnout rate, and its future.

“The island right now is in an economic crisis,” she said. “Its bonds have been rendered junk bonds. It’s having problems borrowing. I don’t know what’s going to happen to Puerto Rico, and its future.”

“Most Puerto Ricans in Puerto Rico think it’s up to them,” she added. “That the day they resolve what they want to do in an affirmative and decisive way, that [when] it’s going to happen. I don’t know that I have that same self-assurance, because it is a bilateral decision. … I do believe that future is unknown.”

Turning to her Puerto Rican heritage, Justice Sotomayor said, “I describe myself as the proudest of Americans. I have a mother who served in the Army.  I have an uncle who died for this country in World War II. I have cousins who have served honorably.  I serve as a Justice with great pride, both in my citizenship and my membership in our American community.”

“But I describe myself as having a Latina soul,” she added.  “And that was created by my parents and the traditions they taught me.  You’ll learn about many of them in the book.  The love of poetry was a gift given to me by my grandmother.  The love of music.  The love of reading.  The love of just life came from the dynamics of my family.”

Posted in What's Happening Now

Recommended Citation: Mark Walsh, Sotomayor on her memoir and much more, SCOTUSblog (Jun. 3, 2014, 4:37 PM),