TOPICS > Nation > Books and Authors

‘Breaking In’ explores Sotomayor’s Supreme Court disruptions and breakthroughs

October 17, 2014 at 6:10 PM EDT
Since 2009, Justice Sonia Sotomayor has brought her unique style to a traditionally reserved Supreme Court. In “Breaking In: The Rise of Sonia Sotomayor and the Politics of Justice,” Reuters journalist Joan Biskupic explores how the court’s first Latina justice is making her mark. Biskupic joins Gwen Ifill for an inside look.

JUDY WOODRUFF: President Obama appointed Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the first Latina to serve on the court, in 2009.

Since then, she has brought her unique style to a normally cloistered and reserved court.

Reuters journalist Joan Biskupic takes us behind the scenes of the secretive court proceedings to reveal how Sotomayor is shaking things but in her new book, “Breaking In: The Rise of Sonia Sotomayor and the Politics of Justice.”

Gwen Ifill spoke with her earlier this week.

GWEN IFILL: Joan Biskupic, thank you for joining us.

I want to start by talking about the subtitle of your book, in which you talk about the politics of justice. When it comes to Sonia Sotomayor, what do you mean by that?

JOAN BISKUPIC, Author, “Breaking In: The Rise of Sonia Sotomayor and the Politics of Justice”: No one gets to the Supreme Court by accident.

And she, from the start, once she became a federal judge on the lower court, looked forward to that, and she had built networks along the way. And what I did in the book was sort of trace her trajectory with the rise of Latinos in America, but also through the politics of justice, how one gets on a district court, is elevated to the appeals court, and then, in 2009, is this breakthrough justice, our first Hispanic, appointed by the first African-American president.

GWEN IFILL: And a disruptive justice in many ways.

JOAN BISKUPIC: People who don’t realty know the Supreme Court don’t understand the rhythms, the decorum, the hierarchies that exist there.

It really struck me that here was this justice who could have shattered a lot of that. If you follow her around, as I did, in San Juan, for example, when she was on her own book tour, you saw these throngs of people lining up to see her.

And I was so struck about how different it was in San Juan compared to where she spends most of her time, in this marble palace where everyone lines up by their role, by their hierarchies. The court police are constantly monitoring who gets in this line, the lawyers, who gets in this line, the public, who gets in this line, the reporters.

But the people who came to see Sonia Sotomayor and who are her people, as she calls them, are all sorts and they all come together.

GWEN IFILL: The other interesting — I love it — people who cover the Supreme Court, who take us behind the scenes of this very secretive-seeming institution.


GWEN IFILL: And one of the things you do in the book is you tell us the story about the Texas affirmative action Texas, because to me that’s a sign of the way things work that we might not see.

JOAN BISKUPIC: Oh, it all went on in secret.

I went into this wondering how she was using her voice behind the scenes, because we know how she has used her voice in public, through her own book and through certain statements from the bench. But I found out that, on this crucial affirmative action case, it was her work behind the scenes that caused a retreat by some conservative justices.

And she, in effect, saved affirmative action for another day. And no one would have known that, because people don’t know what the negotiations are like behind the scenes. And I was able to get that from a majority of her colleagues, and to find out how this scorching dissenting statement altered the course of that case, but, when it was all over, we never would have known. And we didn’t know it at the time.

GWEN IFILL: It was never published.

JOAN BISKUPIC: No. We never know it at the time.

But when I spoke to some of her colleagues about what she had written in that dissenting statement that ended up affecting the majority and allowed the University of Texas policy to stand at the time, people said, just wait and see what she writes in this upcoming Michigan case, because they already knew what was in the works.

And that was the case where she dissented for the first time from the bench and said, race matters. And that was the theme that she had articulated in her earlier opinion that never saw the light of day.

GWEN IFILL: She is so different from the other minority member of the bench, Clarence Thomas, who looks at affirmative action as being a drag. And she looks at — and she calls herself an affirmative action baby.

JOAN BISKUPIC: That’s right.

Clarence Thomas feels that he was really stigmatized it and that other people have been stigmatized by it. But what Justice Sotomayor says is, indeed, I was the perfect affirmative action baby because I was given a boost and I showed that I could then compete.

GWEN IFILL: Why is being a Latina, the first Latina justice more significant than being the first Italian justice, or being an Italian justice like Antonin Scalia?

JOAN BISKUPIC: Well, first of all, you have this population, a growing population that, by 2009, when President Obama put her on the bench, was really, really clamoring for this and the nation was ready for it.

She’s Puerto Rican, but when she was appointed, she stood for all Hispanics and she was embraced that way. And it’s not just this breakthrough, but also the fact that, for years, Hispanics felt on the downside of the justice system. And she has recognized that. She has recognized that it’s been people of color, people, her people, who have gotten on the downside of justice who now gets this representation.

GWEN IFILL: You talk about her people. She has a certain celebrity that other Supreme Court justices do not have.

I wonder if that cuts both ways, whether that’s considered to be divisive or is unpopular among her colleagues.

JOAN BISKUPIC: It does cut both ways.

I think that the justices respect her for her work ethic, respect her for the kind of background that she overcame, respect her for her 17 years on lower courts before she got there. But it can’t help but rattle them a bit — and I’m not speaking about every justice, but some of the justices — that there she is out there as a celebrity figure.

Can you think of anyone ever who would have gotten more than $3 million in advance for her book? And the other justices have written some books, but nowhere near that — with that kind of attention or that kind of money.

GWEN IFILL: Does that celebrity make her less effective on the bench?

JOAN BISKUPIC: Well, that’s — that’s the question I raise.

It’s — behind the scenes, she has been effective, as I said, in the University of Texas affirmative action case. She has also made her mark in terms of criminal procedures, trying to call more attention to the need for fairer procedures.

But I raised the question about whether the sort of celebrity, the disrupting the norm, those kinds of practices, whether that — I say that’s what kind of got her on the bench in the first place. Will it make her an effective negotiator behind the scenes? That remains to be seen.

GWEN IFILL: You don’t have an answer yet.

JOAN BISKUPIC: Well, I can say that she’s been effective in some ways, but she has certainly made it more difficult for herself in others.

GWEN IFILL: The title of the books is “Breaking In: The Rise of Sonia Sotomayor and the Politics of Justice.”

Joan Biskupic, thank you very much.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Online, find out eight things you didn’t know about the Supreme Court justice.