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Justice Sotomayor Talks Life Before and on the Bench in ‘My Beloved World’

February 20, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Justice Sonia Sotomayor is the first Hispanic justice -- and one of the youngest ever -- to serve on the Supreme Court. Her new memoir, "My Beloved World," talks about her early life and difficult childhood. Justice Sotomayor talks with Gwen Ifill about her adjustment to "the bench" and the importance of an open mind.
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GWEN IFILL: One of the Supreme Court’s most junior members, Sonia Sotomayor, steps from behind the black robe to tell the story of her rise from an impoverished childhood to the nation’s premier bench. The memoir is “My Beloved World.”

I sat down with the justice after the court handed down decisions today to talk about how her life informs her jurisprudence.

Justice Sotomayor, welcome. Thank you for joining us.

JUSTICE SONIA SOTOMAYOR, U.S. Supreme Court: Thank you for having me here today.

GWEN IFILL: In your book, you write an interesting thing, which I just want to read back to you.

You say: “I was 15 years old when I understood how it is that things break down. People can’t imagine someone else’s point of view.”

I would like to start there. Explain what you meant by that.

JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: Well, I think the book does that.

I was talking there, I believe, about an incident involving one of my places of work that included my aunt, because I worked in her shop — she didn’t own it personally, but she worked there as well — and about how they thought they were playing a prank on a family by having the supervisor call the home to tell a false story, that the husband in the home was having an affair with her.

And I was in a state of shock that neither my aunt, who I loved dearly, or the other women, whom I respected on so many levels, couldn’t imagine what havoc they were causing in that home. And I see that pattern repeating itself so often when people do things without imagining the impact it’s having on the other person.

And it was a lifelong lesson. I spend so much of my life sort of thinking about, what are other people thinking?

GWEN IFILL: It certainly comes in handy for a judge to be able to look at …

JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: Absolutely. But I don’t think it’s just for a judge.

I think it’s for anybody in any life situation. If you don’t imagine what the person you’re speaking to might be thinking, you can’t anticipate how that’s person is reacting to you.

GWEN IFILL: You have now been on the court how long?

JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: Oh, it’s my third-and-a-half year.

GWEN IFILL: Wow.

JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: And it’s sort of — you just said wow. It’s what I feel each passing year. It flies by.

GWEN IFILL: I want to talk to you about your first year that you write about here in the book. I wonder if you would just read the part I have outlined there.

JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: “The first year that I face the challenges of any new environment has always been a time of fevered insecurity, a reflexive terror that I will fall flat on my face. In the self-imposed probationary period, I work with compulsive intensity and single-mindedness until I gradually feel more confident. Some of the looming panic is no doubt congenital. I often see in my reaction something of my mother’s irrational fear of being unequipped for nursing school. I have gone through the same kinds of transition since becoming a judge, first on the federal district court, then on the appeals court, and finally on the Supreme Court.”

GWEN IFILL: OK, let’s — you don’t look like a person prone to reflexive terror, but tell me about that.

JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: But I am, Gwen.

Just what the book describes, which is, in every new experience, I’m anticipating the worse, and doing everything humanly possible to master the situation — well, first to learn it, to understand what in my environment means and what it needs to be successful.

It’s not something that — and this is what the book is talking about to every reader. We’re not born anything. We’re not born a lawyer. We’re not born a judge. We’re certainly not born a justice, which is something that Justice John Paul Stevens reminded me during my first year on the bench one day, when I was actually disclosing to him how anxiety-ridden I was about being a justice.

And he just touched upon a reality for me. He said, “Sonia, none of us is born a justice. We grow into becoming one.”

GWEN IFILL: Have you grown into it?

JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: Not yet, but I’m growing.

GWEN IFILL: Not yet?

JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: Not yet, but I’m growing.

GWEN IFILL: That’s good that we see it all ahead of you.

One of the things you write about also in the book is your learned habit for building bridges and seeing bridges where other people see chasms. Talk about that.

JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: Well, that’s also part of the lessons that I share in the book, which is, if you build bridges and not chasms, if you don’t build that sort of pool in front of you, but look at ways of sort of connecting with others, rather than seeing your differences, that you accomplish so much more.

GWEN IFILL: That seems like kind of anathema in Washington.

JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: I’m told it is.

GWEN IFILL: Just you’re told?

JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: I’msmiling because, remember, I just got to Washington three-and-a-half years ago.

But I think it’s really a life lesson, which is if you approach life looking immediately at how people or situations are different, you’re never going to find a solution to a problem.

GWEN IFILL: I want to talk to you about affirmative action. It is something that you support, that you speak of, of…

JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: Be careful about using that word.

GWEN IFILL: OK. Be careful. You have court cases which may come before you.

JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: No, it’s not just that, though…

GWEN IFILL: What is it? Tell me.

JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: … which is, it’s that people approach everything in life with its worst, and I do something very different in life. I try to find the best in everything. And if you try to find the best in people, they will usually rise up to your expectation.

GWEN IFILL: Well, there is …

JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: And if you look for the worst, you’re going to find it, because there is no perfect thing.

GWEN IFILL: The reason I ask you that question is because — that is a perfect example. Some people look at affirmative action as it’s come to be known and they think of it as a crutch, as a negative, as a scar. And you don’t.

JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: Well, some forms of it.

If you look at some other forms of it, quota systems, which our court years and years ago said was a bad thing and struck that down, there are forms of anything that can be bad. But there are ways of doing almost anything that can be positive and good. And if you look at affirmative action as I experienced it in the earlier parts of my years, as only a challenge to institutions not to limit their looking to those fora that they were used to, you know, everybody finds it very deeply comforting to look for people in the places that they think are going to produce the candidates they want, not realizing that there are people with the same skills, the same abilities, and perhaps the same promise in other places, then you’re not going to have as much diversity if you’re looking only in one little corner of life.

If you’re willing to say, you know, there are capable students, capable potential employees that come from a lot of different backgrounds than the ones I’m accustomed to, well, if you think that way, that I have to look more broadly, then you might have a more diverse population in your schools and in your workplaces.

GWEN IFILL: As you were writing this book, you were forced to kind of think about your personal beliefs and your personal upbringing and your personal grounding, and blend it with your professional path, which has been, I think, by — without argument, fairly successful.

JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: Thankfully.

GWEN IFILL: How do you draw that line? Do you draw a line?

JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: Do I draw a line between how I rule as a judge from my personal experiences? Absolutely. Every judge has to.

Every judge comes to the bench with personal experiences. If you assume that your personal experiences define the outcome, you’re going to be a very poor judge, because you’re not going to convince anybody of your views. You have to be a judge that is able to step aside and determine when their personal bias is influencing the way they’re thinking about a case.

You’re not a very good judge if you’re incapable of that. And, in fact, I have spoken previously about the fact that, as judges, we have to be sensitive to that. We have to know those moments when our personal bias is seeping in to our decision-making. If we’re not, then we’re not being very good judges. We’re not being fair and impartial.

But that doesn’t mean that our personal experiences can’t permit us and don’t permit us to see arguments that others might miss. It’s a sort of fine walking that we’re always doing between, when are we listening with an open mind and when has our mind been closed because of a bias?

GWEN IFILL: I have to ask you one final question which is — comes out of the news. During your confirmation hearings, you said that you didn’t — you thought it was a grand idea, a good idea — you had experience with cameras in the court.

Now you’re rethinking that now that you’re actually on the bench.

JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: Keep an open mind about everything, including that.

And I haven’t made up my mind finally. But I’m now beginning to see the other side of the arguments.

GWEN IFILL: It helps being in the room, doesn’t it?

JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: It certainly does, on so many different levels.

GWEN IFILL: Justice Sonia Sotomayor, thank you so much for joining us.

JUTICE SOTOMAYOR: Thank you.

GWEN IFILL: You can find more of my interview with Justice Sotomayor, including why she thinks the idea of women having it all is silly, online.