Supreme Court Justice discusses the experiences that shaped her

Sonia Sotomayor

Sonia Sotomayor -

U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor poses with students after speaking in the HUB ballroom.


Photo by Shreya Tewari

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor is not a tall woman.

So when she forayed into a crowd of 1,100 students in the HUB ballroom Monday afternoon for group photos, she repeatedly found herself in the center of large circles of students standing around and above her on chairs, angling their faces into the frame. 

“This is a rockstar,” UW Provost Ana Mari Cauce said of Sotomayor, who was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court by Barack Obama in 2009, in an interview leading up to the event. 

The photo-op, which Sotomayor joked was carried out in defiance of the U.S. Marshals’ security recommendations, was the culmination of the Justice’s interview with Provost Cauce.

During the interview, Cauce used questions submitted by students to guide the conversation, which focused on Sotomayor’s New York Times best-seller “My Beloved World,” as well as the Justice’s formative experiences and time on the bench. 

“My Beloved World,” published in Spanish as “Mi mundo adorado,” is an autobiographical account of Sotomayor’s life from her earliest memories until 1992, when she was appointed to her first judicial position. According to Sotomayor, the narrative ended there because this “chapter” in her life — her time as a judge — was not complete and therefore could not yet be written about.

The book relays the struggles and triumphs of a young Sotomayor in what many students called “beautiful” language. The justice, whose parents were Puerto Rican immigrants, was raised in the Bronx by her mother, after the death of her alcoholic father when she was 9 years old. In addition to economic hardship, Sotomayor also dealt with health issues associated with Type 1 diabetes.

And yet, “Sonia from the Bronx,” as she referred to herself, overcame these obstacles, and went on to attend Princeton University and Yale Law School, before ultimately becoming the third woman and first Latino to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Sotomayor said it was important for her to write this book, as an exercise in remembering where she came from and who she is. “Power can corrupt,” she said. “I work hard to remind myself I didn’t get to where I got by myself.”

There was a tangible sense of affection for Sotomayor, held not just by members of the Latino community, but by audience members of all races and ethnicities. According to Cauce, this affection is the result of Sotomayor’s openness. While many judges are reserved, Sotomayor seems accessible, Cauce said.

“She made a decision to go out there and talk about her life in a way that is so human,” Cauce said. “Through her book, I feel like I know her.”

Emma López, one of the many students who took a seminar course winter quarter that focused on Sotomayor’s book, felt a similar kinship with Sotomayor. “She’s the definition of what a Latino should be,” López said. López and her fellow seminar participants received a signed copy of Sotomayor’s book and a reserved seat at the event.

Many students wrote in to ask Sotomayor for guidance about navigating the college experience. Cauce quoted a UW student, present in the audience, who asked, “What advice would you give to your 20-year-old self?”

Sotomayor laughed and said she was skeptical of giving advice, as she herself would never have listened to the advice when she was young. However, she did advise students to try new things and meet new people in order to become a more educated person.

“Think of college as a growing experience,” Sotomayor said. “One in which you become a more interesting person.”

Reach reporter Eleanor Cummins at news@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @elliepses 

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