When Sonia Sotomayor was only seven months old, according to family lore, she abruptly stood up one day—and ran. There was no crawling or walking for her; she simply took off. It was a fitting start for a woman whose will and intellect have propelled her from growing up in a Bronx housing project to being the first Hispanic justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Sotomayor has faced some big challenges. At seven, she learned she had type 1 diabetes and started giving herself three to six insulin shots a day. Her father was an alcoholic and died of heart disease at 42, when Sotomayor was nine. Her mother then fell into a deep grief and often locked herself in her bedroom, until one day her daughter confronted her, demanding to know if her mother intended to leave her and her younger brother, Juan, too.
Sotomayor escaped into books, but it was a TV show that set her on the path to her future career. While watching an episode of the legal drama Perry Mason, she noticed that the judge wielded all the power in the courtroom and decided that someday she would be one.
As a freshman at Princeton University, Sotomayor felt like an outsider among her largely white, affluent, better-educated classmates. (She shared her feelings of not belonging with a friend, who then compared her to Alice in Wonderland; Sotomayor replied, “Alice who?”) Yet she graduated summa cum laude and became a member of Phi Beta Kappa.
Sotomayor went on to attend Yale Law School and became a district court judge at 38, making her the first Hispanic federal judge in New York State. In May 2009, President Barack Obama nominated her to the U.S. Supreme Court (she was confirmed that August). Her memoir, My Beloved World, comes out in paperback this month. On a recent afternoon, RD sat down with the associate justice in her bright, airy chambers at the Supreme Court.
Next: The best part of being on the Supreme Court »
Give me the Reader’s Digest version of the theme of your book.
I want people who feel [they have] challenges in their lives to come away believing that despite their difficulties, they can still accomplish a lot. I’m completely honest about the many adversities in my life. One of my main lessons is to always ask for help.
You’re from an atypical background for a Supreme Court justice. Did people back home treat you differently after you were nominated?
There were moments, especially at the beginning of the process! Once, I went to a family Christmas party, and all of a sudden, everybody’s hanging on my every word. At one point, I realized the room was completely silent, and I looked around at them and said, “Cut it out! I’m still Sonia!” [Laughs] Then the talking and screaming and arguing started again.
What’s the best part about being on the Supreme Court?
Having a voice in the decision-making process. And meeting with people and talking to them about our judicial system. There’s something exceedingly gratifying about [that]. I’ve met with groups as young as Head Starters.
How do you explain your job to kids?
I’ve been on Sesame Street. I give a very simplified version of what a judge does. But a lot of younger kids are more interested in presidents than in judicial history, so I’ve had to bone up on my early-history lessons. I do talk to them about how the law helps people solve their problems. It’s all about relationships—family relationships, business relationships—and how you structure those relationships so that conflicting interests can be resolved or harmonized. We’re not solemn.
Next: Her idea of happiness »
You have to do an awful lot of reading and writing as part of your job. Are you an early riser?
No, I’m a New Yorker. [Laughs] Justice [Ruth Bader] Ginsburg is our night owl.
RD has a monthly article called “13 Things Your __ Won’t Tell You.” What would be included on your list of “13 Things Your Supreme Court Justice Won’t Tell You”?
That the law doesn’t give you clear answers. There’s no easy Supreme Court case. We’re all trained lawyers. By the time we write an opinion, we’ve convinced ourselves it’s the right decision. We try to write in a persuasive, forceful, and convincing manner. But it’s misleading to assume that the verdict was as clear-cut as we make it out to be.
What’s your idea of happiness?
I think it would be the satisfaction of enjoying things with others—meaning, when you’re giving to others, whether it’s time, attention, a gift, anything. Just those moments of sharing.
With or to anyone in particular?
No, and that’s why I do public service; for me, the act of giving is the height of joy. And I define joy as happiness.
One of the most popular columns in our magazine is Word Power. What’s your favorite word?
I’ve never considered that question! I’d have to think long and hard about it. Will you take a favorite phrase?
Sure. What is it?
“Yes, I can.” Just like the Little Engine That Could.