People around the world watched U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor administer the vice presidential oath of office to Joe Biden earlier this week, but UT students had the chance to see her in person when she visited Austin on Wednesday.
Sotomayor came to Austin to promote her new memoir, “My Beloved World,” in which she recounts a childhood spent dealing with Type 1 diabetes, material poverty and the early death of her alcoholic father. The book describes how she overcame that adversity to become a judge. The justice made stops at KLRU’s “Overheard with Evan Smith” and local independent bookstore BookPeople, where she attracted more than 700 people.
Sotomayor spoke at length about the improbability of her life story and said she hopes to convince people that it is possible to overcome adversity.
“One of the purposes of the book was to ensure that every adult and child who read it would come to the end and say, ‘If she can do it, I can too,’” Sotomayor said during her KLRU interview. “Aim as high as you can — even if you don’t reach your ultimate dream, the path there will enrich you.”
Sotomayor said she was aware that releasing a memoir while serving on the court is an atypical move.
“I have ventured to write more intimately about my personal life than is customary for a member of the Supreme Court,” Sotomayor writes in the book’s preface. “I will be judged as a human being by what readers find here.”
H. W. Perry, associate professor of law and government, said Sotomayor’s decision to release a personal memoir reflects a new willingness among the justices to engage with the media.
“The court is a relatively secretive place,” Perry said. “But certain justices are becoming more willing to be seen in public, grant interviews and write books, and that is a fairly new phenomenon.”
Although Sotomayor did not explicitly mention Fisher v. Texas, a case currently before the Supreme Court that examines the use of race in UT’s admissions process, she did address her experience with affirmative action in the memoir.
Sotomayor, a Princeton University alumna, said she often felt intense pressure because of her status as a minority student on campus.
“[The campus newspaper] routinely published letters to the editor lamenting the presence on campus of ‘affirmative action students,’ each of whom had presumably displaced a far more deserving affluent white male and could rightly be expected to crash into the gutter built of her own unrealistic expectations,” Sotomayor wrote in her book. “The pressure to succeed was relentless.”
Perry said he would caution against drawing conclusions about a justice’s constitutional philosophy strictly based on his or her personal life history.
“We’re obviously all products of our life experiences, and judges are not automatons,” Perry said. “But when you go to law school, you debate, and that might equally shape how they come to interpret the Constitution.”
Perry cited Justice Clarence Thomas, whose own experiences with affirmative action have not convinced him that the method is constitutional.
“Justice Thomas, who believes that affirmative action perpetuates the problem of discrimination, serves as a perfect counterexample,” Perry said.
UT law student Rebekah Mata said she did not mind that Sotomayor avoided talking about policy. Mata said she was simply thrilled to meet her in person.
“We’re law students, so she’s kind of like our Rolling Stones,” Mata said.
Printed on Thursday, January 24, 2013 as: Her beloved justice