'Sonia from the Bronx' visits Baltimore promoting her memoirs, 'My Beloved World'
On Monday she was 'sternly reprimanding' a federal prosecutor in Texas for a racially charged comment made during cross examination of a black defendant; on Wednesday she was admonishing her colleague, Justice Antonin Scalia, regarding his reference to the 1965 Voting Rights Act being a “perpetuation of racial entitlement”; and last night, America's first Hispanic Supreme Court Justice was addressing hundreds of admirers and giving them a lesson in social policy, life and the world in which we live today.
Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the 58-year old New York native, was in Baltimore last night trying out the Enoch Pratt Free Library's new audio equipment – which was paid for through a voter approved bond bill in last year's election. Yet, though her voice was low, her stern and robust words echoed loud throughout the library's main auditorium; as the line to see America's first Latina Justice wrapped around all four blocks encompassing the downtown library.
Speaking to the crowd as if they were lifelong friends, Sotomayor made her way through the onlookers while addressing key points made in her first memoir, while answering questions from a fanbase that was dominated by law students and officials from Maryland's judicial system. Speaking from the heart, the former Princeton and Yale grad had attendees, young and alike, attentive and almost in tears – as she dug deep into her past, exposing some of the life lessons that made her who she is today.
Sotomayor expressed her sincere and undeniable passion for education, health and making the most of the present – “never taking for granted what you can do right here, in the moment; as none of us knows what tomorrow may hold”. She spoke to her childhood diagnosis of type 1 diabetes at age seven, and how that had a profound impact on her upbringing, as well as addressing the death of her father Juan when she was nine and her subsequent upbringing by her mother in the Bronx.
She spoke to the disease of 'insecurity', stating that “if you don't have security, then you ought to go order some today”; as she referenced her own insecurities growing up – even as she first took her seat on a federal bench.
“I would not have considered myself unqualifiedly happy as a child. Ultimately, though, I realized I did have sources of deep happiness, and those bred in me an optimism that proved stronger than any adversity.” - 'My Beloved World'
After graduating summa cum laude from Princeton University in 1976 and following that up with a J.D. from Yale University, Sotomayor became an assistant district attorney in New York for about five years before entering into private practice in 1984.
The proud Puerto Rican was a registered Independent early on, without having the political connections to party bosses needed to obtain high-ranking appointments and perks back then; yet, based on her vocal support of education, affordable housing rights and other social justices, the young, now divorced, lawyer became appointed to several key agencies, boards and commissions – uncommon for someone without a party affiliation to either the Democratic or Republican party.
“The idea of my becoming a Supreme Court Justice – which, indeed, as a goal would inevitably elude the vast majority of aspirants – never occurred to me except as the remotest of fantasies. But experience has taught me that you cannot value dreams according to the odds of their coming true.” - 'My Beloved World'
Having wanted to be a judge since she was ten years old, Sotomayor got her shot in 1991 when Democratic NY Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan made good on his promise to get a Hispanic judge appointed for New York. Having a 'special arrangement' with Republican Senator Al D'Amato, which allowed Moynihan to choose one out of every four NY district court seats – though the GOP were in control of the White House; Sotomayor was the fortunate recipient of such an impractical agreement.
Her appointment to the seat however would not endure such friendly political partisanship, as Republicans tried to block her and three other democratic nominations for judgeship based on retaliation for an unrelated block Democrats had placed on one their nominees. Sotomayor was ultimately confirmed by unanimous consent on August 11, 1992, becoming the youngest judge in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. Also becoming the first Hispanic federal judge in the State of New York and the first Puerto Rican woman to serve as a judge in a U.S. federal court; Sotomayor began then to set the precedent for what was yet to come.
“People tend to think that Puerto Ricans are nothing but farmers, some not even realizing that we are United States citizens,” Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor
Facing a test of wills before the United States Senate, Sotomayor was held up in her nomination to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, when Republicans again wanted to block her 'rise to the Supreme Court', as conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh even stated that she was an “ultra-liberal on a rocket ship to the nation's highest court”. She rebuked the liberal labels she continued to receive from GOP senators in their 'grilling' of her during a September 1997 hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, where Republican senators lobbed strong questions at her regarding gay marriage, mandatory sentencing and even her level of respect for one of their own – Justice Clarence Thomas.
“That series of questions, I think, were symbolic of a set of expectations that some people had [that] I must be liberal. It is stereotyping, and stereotyping is perhaps the most insidious of all problems in our society today!” ~ Judge Sotomayor
During her tenure in the Court of Appeals, Sotomayor developed a reputation for being a brash, blunt and often times confrontational judge, known for her uncompromising preparation for oral arguments and expected at times to address lawyers with a line of questioning often times not soliciting an answer, but rather to make her point.
Thus, her statement aimed at the Assistant U.S. Attorney in Texas earlier this week may have been rare when referencing her time on the Supreme Court; yet, when analyzing her body of work and life, Justice Sotomayor was never one to shy away from a confrontation – especially when she felt strongly opposed, or supportive, of someone or something.
And that level of humble yet heroic, stubbornly stern yet seductively soothing, uncompromising aura of hers came across loud and clear last night, as she made a direct appeal to those in attendance that we must not wait on others to do for us, that which we have the ability to do for ourselves. “I found her very inspiring,” says Baltimore City Councilman Bill Henry, who was in attendance at last night's discussion. “She brings a refreshingly human element to the Court that has often seemed very aloof and uncaring over the last generation.”
And while time shall tell if she becomes an American icon like the first lady to grace the Court, Sandra Day O'Connor; Justice Sotomayor will no doubt leave a lasting legacy in the minds of many minorities - who are proud to call her one of their own. For she put it best in her 2001 Berkeley Law lecture when she stated that, "I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life."
And while conservatives such as Limbaugh tried to paint her as a racist for that remark, those of us who live in this skin and suffer through the degradation and hypocrisy that prompted Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act in the first place, know that she is the only one of the nine justices that know the 1965 act is more than a “perpetuation of racial entitlement” - but rather is the proliferation of racial equality!
Her book entitled, 'My Beloved World', is a MUST READ and can be purchased here
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