*This live interview with Justice Sotomayor originally aired on January 22, 2013. An edited version was aired on May 27, 2013, as part of a special Memorial Day show.
U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor spoke on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show this morning about her life in New York City and how her experiences here led to her career on the bench. She started by talking about the tenement building where she spent her early years, and the Bronx neighborhood where her family lived:
“It was Kelly Street, and even at the time it was decaying. The stairways were very, very dark, the walls were peeling. At that time, as you may remember, there was a problem with lead paint, but who knew about lead paint back then."
“The neighborhood had already become crime-ridden. As the book details, most of my childhood the neighborhood was called Fort Apache – one of the worst crime areas in the nation at the time. It was a difficult neighborhood in the sense of so many challenges for so many people, whether it was drugs or poverty or crime, each of it presented its own problems."
“I very much try in my book to remind people that there are people in those neighborhoods, and really people just like them – with the same family values, with the same sense of love and caring about neighbors, and the same sense of wanting to do better in life. Not everyone in a poor neighborhood is a criminal, and I think that my story details that reality – that part of the reality that people often don’t see.”
Justice Sotomayor said she is “heartbroken” about the pending closing of her grammar school, the Blessed Sacrament School in Soundview. She also spoke about attending Cardinal Spellman High School in the Bronx, and credited her junior year history teacher, Ms. Katz, with inspiring her to think critically about the school.
“She and her boyfriend were heavily involved in progressive social issues in Latin America. She challenged us to think critically about history – not merely to recite facts but to analyze the forces that led to conditions throughout history. And that was the first time someone challenged me to think analytically, and so for me that was a progressive teacher.”
“In the end, I chose to be an involved citizen – something that I advocate to kids all the time. When kids or adults ask me what I think about a particular law, my response almost always is ‘look, I can’t tell you what I think about a law that I’m going to be judging as a judge, but I can tell you that what’s really important is what you think.’”
“I was a protected kid from a Puerto Rican family. […] The idea of being progressive or socially involved in the way I’m talking about was not a part of the world I was in at the time.”
Her family’s Puerto Rican roots were strengthened by vacations taken to the island via the discounted PanAm air bus. “And so my very tiny little world at the time, included an island that many miles away.” The Justice declined to share her opinion on statehood for Puerto Rico, citing possible future cases. She also declined to speak about today’s 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade for the same reason.
“I don’t express a view that I’m going to say publicly because I fear that people are going to give it more importance than it deserves, but more importantly because I can anticipate that if the rights of statehood are given to Puerto Ricans someday, there will be some legal challenges to the process – it’s inevitable.”
Justice Sotomayor writes about her positive experience with affirmative action, and her memoir has been compared to Justice Clarence Thomas’ more negative impressions. The court is revisiting affirmative action in Fisher v. University of Texas.
“Everyone comes from their life experiences, concentrating perhaps or seeing one side more than another. To the extent that I’m very open about the stigma that was directed at me for being an affirmative action beneficiary, I talk about numerous instances.”
“It’s not how the door of opportunity opened, it’s what I do with that door once I get in – and I’ve tried to live in a way that proves that it’s not just sheer numbers that get you into school, that the complex is more complicated than that. It’s the whole person. And that’s what’s missing in this conversation.”
Last week, Justice Thomas broke nearly seven years of silence on the bench during oral arguments – but it’s not clear what he said. Even Justice Sotomayor, who was there last Monday, couldn’t hear.
“As you know, the laughter was unbelievable at the time – and a few of us were looking at each other trying to figure out what he said. He is next to Justices Breyer and Scalia, and I don’t even know if they heard him. But it was awfully for people to hear him laugh, because he has a contagious, wonderful laugh.”