Justice Sotomayor credits her stubbornness for getting ahead

By Ernest Luning

DENVER — Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor credited a stubborn streak she’s had since she was a toddler with helping her rise from poverty to a seat on the highest court in the land.

When she was 2 years old, the future justice would bunch up her cheeks to keep her mother from forcing in a spoonful of food, Sotomayor told a crowd of more than 500 high school, college and law students Aug. 26 at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law. The more her mother tried to get food past her clenched teeth, the more she resisted. “And we did that for hours,” Sotomayor said, remembering she would also sit in her home’s “time-out corner forever.”

“I am the most stubborn person in the world,” she said near the mid-point of question-and-answer session sponsored by the law school and the Colorado Campaign for Inclusive Excellence, a group that aims at increasing diversity among lawyers.

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor addresses students Aug. 26 at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law. Her hour-long talk was heavy on her background and the challenges she’s overcome but light on legal commentary.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

She acknowledged that this degree of obstinacy probably sounds more endearing decades later than it did at the dinner table. “These are not great qualities,” she said to laughter. “But there is an essence to the idea that every time you get knocked down, you get up and fight again.”

Without that core of ornery contrariness, Sotomayor suggested she might not have gone on to become the first Latina associate justice. After President Clinton nominated her to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals — not long after his predecessor, the first President Bush, put her on the District Court — she said she’d decided she loved being a trial judge so much, she didn’t really want the job. “And then a lot of people started putting up resistance to my appointment,” she said with a grin. Facing opposition, she dug in her heels and won her confirmation. “If they hadn’t fought so hard,” she said, “I would have given up earlier. But I couldn’t let them beat me.”

Answering a dozen other questions, Sotomayor sketched out a portrait of her own stubborn path from a childhood in public housing in the Bronx through Ivy League schools on full scholarships, a prosecutor’s office, the echelons of corporate law and a series of robes in the federal judiciary that landed her an appointment to the Supreme Court last year.

“From that moment to almost today, I have been living a fantasy,” she said. “I keep saying I’m waiting for someone to pinch me and wake me up. I don’t really want them to.”
But the fantasy isn’t without its hard edges, she said.

Asked what has been hardest about joining the court, Sotomayor cautioned that, “this is getting more personal than you may want,” and told the students that she hasn’t been able to be with her ailing mother because of the demands of the job.

The biggest sacrifice she’s made, she said, “was taking this job when I know I’m on the tail end of my mother’s life. For those of you who are young here, you probably can’t appreciate that. But my mother’s health is not perfect.” Her mother went into the hospital earlier that week, Sotomayor said, “and I’m not there.”

Her hour-long talk — she was on her way to a gathering of 10th U.S. Circuit judges holding a regional conference in Colorado Springs — was heavy on her background and the challenges she’s overcome but light on legal commentary, as she side-stepped a handful of questions about questions that might appear before the court.

Asked whether judges should consider the political climate when deciding cases such as the Arizona immigration law currently under court review, Sotomayor begged off addressing the specific case, noting that she hasn’t examined the arguments beyond what’s been reported in newspapers. In general, though, she said that’s “one of the beauties of being a justice for life, is that we are charged with not considering the political views of the time” and instead are “charged with looking at what the Constitution or the law demands.”

Still, she cautioned, by the time a dispute gets to the Supreme Court, there’s already plenty of interests lined up on both sides, and someone’s already been harmed.

“Waiting for the courts to do that is giving away your rights of citizenship, because citizenship means participation in the development of our laws, in the development of our society,” she said. She then told the students: “Don’t wait for the courts — you’ve got to start that process much earlier than when the moment of confrontation evolves.”

Answering another question about a recent 5-4 court decision on the right against self-incrimination, where Sotomayor wrote the dissent, she said she didn’t think the current court is working to undo the landmark Miranda decision. Then she relayed what she called one of the best pieces of advice she received from Justice David Souter, whose retirement opened a spot for her on the court.

“‘Sonia,’” she said he told her,” “‘this job will be infinitely easier for you if you accept the people you are working with are people of good faith.’” The lesson she said she took from his advice was to trust justices on the other side of legal questions were reaching their conclusions the same way she was, by applying the law as they saw it. She said so long as she doesn’t “ascribe evil motives to them, you will find disagreement is something you can engage in, both with passion and with respect.”

She also declined to get specific about the WikiLeaks controversy — surrounding the watchdog website’s posting of thousands of documents related to the Afghanistan war on the Internet — predicting the question is likely to come before the court. Comparing the question to the Pentagon Papers case decided by the court nearly three decades ago, Sotomayor said, it is an “issue that keeps arising from generation to generation of how far we’ll permit government restriction on freedom of speech in favor of protection of the country.”

When it comes time to make the decisions, she said, “There’s no black and white lines — it’s all very much a gray area, and how much the courts will permit Congress to go in terms of which laws it passes, each statute will raise a different set of questions.”

There was one question that didn’t evoke any talk of gray areas, but had Sotomayor talking in absolute terms. Asked how students should deal with being held back by financial restraints, she replied, “You can’t let money hold you back.” She advised “getting more loans than you think you can afford” and working more hours than seems possible.

“For me,” she said, “there is nothing more important long-term than getting the best education you can at whatever cost you have to pay.”

The reason, she said, was simple: “I don’t think that there’s an opener to doors in this society greater than education. Education opens your eyes to the world and it lets you fly without a plane.”