By Evangeline Cafe
Northwest Asian Weekly
On the evening of March 10, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor spoke to an eager crowd at Town Hall in Seattle. About 850 people packed the wooden pews in the building’s Great Hall for the rare chance to hear a sitting justice engage in an intimate conversation with the public.
Justice Sotomayor was in town to discuss her memoir, “My Beloved World,” in which she details her journey from housing projects in the Bronx to the nation’s highest court. Greeted by a standing ovation, she stepped onstage, captivating the crowd by her larger-than-life presence, but quickly made them feel at home with her kindred spirit and candid humor.
The event was moderated by author Eric Liu, who posed questions from both himself and the audience. In her answers, Justice Sotomayor touched on several overarching themes that resonated throughout the night.
In her memoir, Justice Sotomayor opens up about her childhood — her admiration for her grandmother, or abuelita, the frequent fighting between her mother, a nurse, and her alcoholic father, and the fear that set in when she was diagnosed with type-1 diabetes at the age of 7.
Hardships at home prompted the young Sotomayor to learn how to take care of herself, from cleaning the house every day to learning to administer her own insulin shot. She said she felt the need to share her upbringing with others because it defines who she is today.
“Ultimately, I had to rely on me to survive, but I couldn’t do it alone,” she said. Justice Sotomayor, who is the child of Puerto Rican immigrants, emphasized that she would not be where she is today without the support of her extended family network. “Nobody has to do it alone … if you forget how much you need others to be successful, then you’re going to limit your success,” she said.
Although Justice Sotomayor has achieved what many would consider the pinnacle of any legal career — attaining a seat on the highest court in the land — she refuses to let her success stop her from seeking help when she needs it.
“Mentors are terribly important in life,” she said. Even as a Supreme Court Justice, she still looks to other people for help. She closely watches her fellow justices carry about their duties, she said, such as how they structure their legal opinions, in order to keep improving her own work.
“I have spent my life never being afraid of saying “I don’t know,” said Justice Sotomayor.
“There is no shame in not knowing. There should be shame in not asking,” she said.
Justice Sotomayor added that success is not the absence of failure; rather, it is the constant pursuit of the truth.
“Failure is such a wonderful teacher … not just about others, but about ourselves.”
Justice Sotomayor admitted that she is a very competitive person, but only against herself.
“When you’re trying to meet someone else’s expectations, someone else’s goals, that is when it’s disruptive,” she said.
Justice Sotomayor said that the lessons in her book go beyond issues of gender, race, and class, and that people from around the world could relate to her life story.
“It is not gender, it is not race, it is not ethnicity… it is about … the human condition. How do you improve yourself when you do not have a game plan in hand? You don’t escape your background. You have to embrace it,” she said. “My story is your story.”
Justice Sotomayor said that each person should ask, “What issue in this world bothers me?” and “What is it I’m doing to better my world?” She believes that if everybody did this and acted on it, we would create a “tsunami of change.”
When asked whether women in our society can “have it all” in regards to achieving both a fulfilling family life and a successful career, Justice Sotomayor said that she believes the conversation is wrong and that our nation should reframe the question. She said that the better inquiry is, “Can I do what is meaningful for me in a way that really balances my different desires?”
She said that stay-at-home mothers and fathers should not feel guilty about their decision to care for their children at home. Similarly, parents who work outside of the home should not feel guilty about their decisions.
Justice Sotomayor said that she wants men and women to have the freedom to choose what is right for themselves and their families, “and not worry about people judging them.”
When asked what should be done to encourage more minorities to serve as judges, Justice Sotomayor said that higher pay offers one solution.
“Pay more money,” she said. “You have to make wanting to do this more attractive,” she said.
Justice Sotomayor said that courts are paying so poorly that many minorities cannot afford to accept a judicial position while supporting a family.
The night ended with a charming question by an 8-year-old girl who asked Justice Sotomayor what she would wish for if she could “wave a magic wand.”
“If I could wave a magic wand, I would wish every child could have the same quality of education,” said Justice Sotomayor.
“I think learning, being curious about the world, is the most important thing in life,” she said. (end)
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