I recently finished Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s autobiography, My Beloved World. It’s a terrific book and an interesting companion to another outstanding Supreme Court memoir, Justice Clarence Thomas’s My Grandfather’s Son.
In a nutshell, My Beloved World traces Justice Sotomayor’s life from her early childhood in the Bronx through her confirmation as a federal district court judge. She doesn’t write about her judicial career, which she views as a work in progress. Nor does she discuss her judicial philosophy. The book is about her personal story, not her legal perspective.
Fortunately, her personal story is mesmerizing. She grew up mostly in public housing. Her father, described as a usually sweet man afflicted by alcoholism, died when she was nine. Her mother worked long hours as a nurse and was often absent, physically as well as emotionally. Young Sonia was, of necessity, independent and self-sufficient; she was diagnosed with diabetes and at age seven learned to administer her own shots as no adult could be counted on to do so. Yet she was nonetheless rooted in the rich soil of a large extended family and a strong Puerto Rican community. She was also extremely close to her brother, now a physician; a brilliant cousin; and other exceptional peers.
She attended Catholic school through twelfth grade, and despite the challenges of growing up poor and sometimes living a long distance from her school, she excelled. She was involved in student government, and it is evident that she came naturally to networking and politics. She also participated in speech and debate, an experience she discusses in some detail.
Next up was Princeton. She did well academically, worked hard at part-time jobs (including one in a cutting-edge computer lab), and was deeply involved in the minority student community and in the fight for affirmative action. Her strong support for affirmative action stands in stark contrast to Justice Thomas’s disdain for it, but the issue commands attention in both books.
She went to law school at Yale, where she continued collecting friends and mentors, including Jose Cabranes, now a judge on the Second Circuit. She worked one summer at a big firm, but she did not receive an offer for a permanent job. Although some encouraged her to view that as a result of prejudice, she believed that it was due to the low quality of her written work, so she redoubled her efforts to improve her writing. She landed after graduation at the district attorney’s office in New York, where she thrived professionally. On a personal level, though, the long hours and her single-minded focus on her work took a toll, and her marriage to her high school sweetheart dissolved.
After several years as a prosecutor, Justice Sotomayor moved to a small civil firm. She had an interesting practice, with an international flair. She represented clients from fashion houses to Ferrari, and continued her involvement in nonprofits working with the Latino community. Everyone recognized that she was a star destined for the bench, and she was nominated for a district court judgeship in her 30s, making her among the youngest federal judges in the country.
The book is ultimately uplifting. Justice Sotomayor did everything right – she worked hard, she challenged herself, she served others, and she consistently excelled under difficult circumstances – and she reaped tremendous rewards. It’s also interesting from a historical perspective. Her description of her forebears’ experiences in Puerto Rico are engaging, albeit brief. And her portrayal of her childhood in the 1950s and 1960s is interesting in part because it sounds very different from life in many urban housing projects today. Her neighborhood and her family were poor, but both her parents, like virtually all the adults in the area, worked full time. Many households were headed by married couples. Drugs had only begun their assault on inner city life.
For those interested in further reading, the New York Times review of the book is here. But I recommend treating yourself to the book, and to Justice Thomas’s as well. As far as I know, they are the only sitting Justices who have written autobiographies. Others are the subject of third-party biographies, of course, like Joan Biskupic’s book about Justice Antonin Scalia, and the Court itself offers a web page with a short official biography for each Justice. For my money, though, there’s nothing quite like a memoir, and this is a good one.