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Columnist Gloria J. Browne-Marshall


Justice Sonia Sotomayor was brutally honest.

No U.S. Supreme Court Justice has ever revealed such personal details of life behind their rise to this nation’s most coveted law job.

President Barack Obama made history when he nominated Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2009. A graduate of Princeton University and Yale Law School, she was a former prosecutor and then appellate judge. Now, Justice Sotomayor, the first Latina, and third woman on the U.S. Supreme Court, again breaks new ground.

Her memoir “My Beloved World” is historic because no sitting Justice has ever exposed intimate details of their childhood, especially one involving an alcoholic father and crime-ridden Bronx, New York, neighborhood. Judges are intentionally closed off in order to appear objective. They maintain an image of quiet black-robed dignity.

Yet, Justice Sotomayor did not lose her judicial dignity in displaying her humanity; she only enhanced it. Although of average height, she exudes power. Standing at the podium, her wavy dark hair gleaming in the stage lights, intense brown eyes scanning the audience, it was apparent her reputation for being fearless was well earned.

The recent occasion was a speech before Pen American Society, a conference of writers, held at Cooper Union University. The Justice stood on the very stage where Abraham Lincoln delivered his famous anti-slavery speech, “Right Makes Might” in 1859. It was on this stage Justice Sotomayor spoke of her divorce and critical diabetes-related hospitalizations. She disclosed first injecting herself with insulin for juvenile diabetes at eight years old.

Although prohibited from discussing any pending cases or issues that may come before the Court, she revealed herself an unabashed advocate for educational opportunity, especially for young people. But, being a woman of color, and beneficiary of affirmative action, did not mean she would automatically rule in favor of Fisher v. Texas, an affirmative action case, or Shelby County, a voting rights case.

After speaking for about 20 minutes, she moved to a one-on-one interview with Henry “Skip” Gates, Afro-American studies professor at Harvard University. It was an intimate talk with several hundred mesmerized attendees, quietly listening.

Henry Gates, an African-American, who once stated he held little in common with those Blacks left behind in his now deteriorated childhood neighborhood, was interviewing a woman who writes about finding strength in her South Bronx roots.

Gates is a scholar of Black history. However, he became well-known after an arrest, in his Cambridge home, by a White police officer. Allegations of racial profiling led to national press coverage. Newly-elected President Barack Obama, a Harvard friend, intervened. The result was a “beer summit.”  This political fiasco, where Gates and the officer drank beer at the White House, enraged many Blacks who believed it minimized racial profiling.

Henry Gates now sat across from Justice Sotomayor waiting for her to explain any motivation for writing a book that risked reducing her esteemed judicial status and opening herself to criticism. Justice Sotomayor could have waited until after retirement to write about growing up poor but loved in a home where chronic illness led her to embrace books.

Her explanation is simple. Justice Sonia Sotomayor risked exposing the truth of her less than perfect childhood to inspire others with imperfect childhoods. She made herself a role model for young people navigating poor schools, public housing, dysfunctional families, and illnesses.

This Justice wanted young people to know that being raised by a single mother who worked nights would not limit their dreams. Young Sonia became a Supreme Court Justice and her brother, a medical doctor.  However Justice Sotomayor does not pretend success is inevitable or easy.

She spoke of losing her cousin, Nelson, to drug-induced AIDS. This led Henry Gates to ask how long a poor childhood should be used to excuse adult failures. He seemed to refer to that "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" American dream philosophy. Her reply was simply, “It depends on the individual.”

Henry Gates questioned how Justice Sotomayor reconciled a public housing childhood with being Supreme Court Justice. Her response addresses a dilemma faced by most ambitious people from humble beginnings. Many live conflicted lives. Knowing this, Justice Sotomayor asked Gates, “How many friends are still suffering from a fractured identity?”

Gates stared, blankly. Justice Sotomayor said, with confidence, “I’d rather not be fractured. I’d rather be whole.” Her words rebuked this notion that pursuing your dreams required drowning your past.

Justice Sotomayor has pitched the first ball at Yankee Stadium. She has sworn-in a Vice-President of the United States. Her book reached number one on The New York Times’ bestseller’s list. Raised in the South Bronx; ascended to the U.S. Supreme Court. In all of this, Sonia Sotomayor remains a whole person.

For what good is it to inherit the world and lose your soul?

Gloria J. Browne-Marshall, Gloria J. Browne-Marshall, an Associate Professor of Constitutional Law at John Jay College in New York City, is author of “Race, Law, and American Society: 1607 to Present” and a legal correspondent covering major trials and the U.S. Supreme Court. Twitter: @GBrowneMarshall 

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