Sotomayor peels back the curtain on her life and struggles

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor
Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor

Monday’s conversation between Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Yale Law Professor Judith Resnik found Justice Sotomayor peeling back the curtain on her life and personal struggles, much of which is contained in her recently released memoir My Beloved World. As Sotomayor writes in the prologue, “My purpose in writing is to make my hopeful example accessible. People who live in difficult circumstances need to know that happy endings are possible.”

And indeed, the hourlong conversation was full of hope, but perhaps not in the way one would suspect. Justice Sotomayor chose not to emphasize the character strengths that helped bring her to the nation’s highest court. She chose to emphasize her shortcomings, weaknesses, ignorance, and, most important, the help she received along the way.

Opportunity was the prominent motif of the afternoon. When the Justice attended Princeton and Yale, women had begun attending only just a few years before, and there were less people of color than there were women. Affirmative action was in its infancy, and Sonia Sotomayor was one of the first beneficiaries.

On Monday, Justice Sotomayor shared her life story, yes — but she did so much more. There is a reason she tells her story from the perspective that she does. Sonia Sotomayor is one of the most accomplished hispanic women in our nation’s history, but she does not attribute very much of that success to herself alone. The humility with which she speaks derives itself not from disregard for her character and accomplishments, but rather from the acknowledgement that she is a product of the institutions that surrounded her. She speaks to an enduring faith that institutions — government included — have the ability to help other people in the way they helped her. Princeton and Yale, institutions of education, gave an underprivileged Latina from the Bronx the chance to succeed, and only through the affirmative action those universities took did she realize her potential.

Chief Justice John Roberts famously declared in a controversial 2007 opinion striking down the use of desegregation busing that “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” Justice Sotomayor and her life experiences demand a fundamentally different role for institutions. They argue that institutions create equality, and they do not do so by simply ceasing to discriminate themselves, but by correcting the societal wrongs already in place. And so, merely by telling her story, the Justice managed to articulate an implicit but forceful argument for the role that institutions like government ought to play in guaranteeing equality of opportunity.

Justice Sotomayor has no qualms about admitting and praising the help she received. But it’s important to remember that Yale merely lifted a young Sonia Sotomayor up to the first rung of the social ladder. She climbed the rest herself. The 2,600 attendees know this, which showed in their beaming faces and thunderous applause as the Justice left the stage. The admiration and affection was palpable.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *