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Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor joined the nation’s highest court as its first Latina member. Sotomayor shook things up from the start, salsa dancing at staid Court parties and interrupting colleagues during oral arguments. Veteran Supreme Court biographer and journalist Joan Biskupic charts Sotomayor’s rise, and the mark she’s already made on court decisions around volatile issues like affirmative action.
- Joan Biskupic Legal affairs journalist, Reuters; Author, "Breaking In: The Rise of Sonia Sotomayor and the Politics of Justice"
Read An Excerpt
Excerpted from Joan Biskupic’s “Breaking In: The Rise Of Sonia Sotomayor.” Copyright 2014 by Sarah Crichton Books.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJustice Sonia Sotomayor joining the Supreme Court in 2009, its first Latina justice. Before her appointment, a total of 110 justices had been named to the Court, all but four were white men. Sonia Sotomayor came from a working class Puerto Rican family in the Bronx. She went on to graduate suma cum laude from Princeton University, and then onto Yale Law School. Along the way, she embraced her Puerto Rican identity and the opportunities Affirmative Action offered her.
MR. KOJO NNAMDISince her appointment to the High Court, she's made her mark on the tradition-bound institution from her flashy red nail polish and hoop earrings to her influence on hot button court decisions. Joining us to talk about her or staying with us to talk about her is Joan Biskupic, legal affairs journalist with Reuters and author of the most recent "Breaking In: The Rise of Sonia Sotomayor and the Politics of Justice.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIYou have written very well-received autobiographies of Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Sandra Day O'Connor. Your new book about Sonia Sotomayor, but she penned the memoir of her own in which she shared quite a bit about her childhood and her journey to the High Court. But you didn't set out to write a biography. What was the idea with "Breaking In"?
MS. JOAN BISKUPICNo. In fact, Kojo, I was aware of a contract she had signed in 2010 at the time that I was formulating what I wanted to do. So I never was going to do a biography of her. First of all, she'd only been on the Court in all a few months. But I wanted to a political history because it occurred to me that here she was born in 1954, the year of Brown v. Board of Education, but also the year of Hernandez v. Texas when the Supreme Court, for the first time, said that Hispanics could be a protected class just like African Americans.
MS. JOAN BISKUPICShe comes of age in the civil rights movement. She's at Princeton University in 1972 when the U.S. Secretary of Education says that more minorities should be admitted on campuses. In 1978, the year of Bakke, big Affirmative Action case, she's challenged by a law firm recruiter who says you probably got into Princeton and Yale only because you're Hispanic and Puerto Rican. So she was present in all these key moments.
MS. JOAN BISKUPICSo I was -- I plan to trace her trajectory with the rise of Latinos in America. And then lo and behold, she gives to me this fabulous story as a justice breaking barriers for the end chapters because of the kind of woman she is.
NNAMDIIn 2009, Justice David Souter decided to step down from the Supreme Court and President Obama was poised to nominate someone to the bench. Sonia Sotomayor was not the only potential first Hispanic Supreme Court justice. Advocacy groups have others in mind.
BISKUPICWell, before that, definitely, you probably remember during the Clinton era -- well, first, I should remind you that actually all the way back to President George H.W. Bush, presidents had vowed to put the first Hispanic on the Supreme Court. And there were struggles within administrations and within Hispanic groups. You know, should the first be a Puerto Rican? Should the first be a Mexican American?
BISKUPICPresident Clinton suggested to reporters and to many people that maybe Jose Cabranes, a Puerto Rican who sits now on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in Connecticut, would possibly be the first. But the groups did not coalesce around a particular Hispanic nominee until Sonia Sotomayor. It came to 2009 when the groups came together and our first African American president picked our first Hispanic justice.
NNAMDIHer first five years as a High Court justice were significant years for the Supreme Court. Remind us of some of the issues that were taken up then.
BISKUPICWell, just think, Citizens United in 2010, the big campaign finance case. Immigration cases, Affirmative Action in both 2013 and 2014. And then along the way, a series of cases where she sort of started making her mark and that's in criminal procedure. There are cases, Kojo, that wouldn't make the headlines normally, but that's where she said that she wants to be different and separate herself from other justices, ensure that there's fair criminal procedures for defendants.
BISKUPICThat arises both from her background as a big city prosecutor. She worked in Manhattan as a district -- assistant district attorney. She was a trial judge. She saw the importance of fair procedures. But then also as a Latina.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is our number. We're talking with Joan Biskupic about her latest book. It's called "Breaking In: The Rise of Sonia Sotomayor and the Politics of Justice." What do you think diversity brings to the Supreme Court and how important is it? 800-433-8850. Do you think Affirmative Action helps or stigmatizes those who receive preferences based on race? You can also send us an email to email@example.com.
NNAMDIFrom the start of her Supreme Court days, Sotomayor has been a strong voice on issues around race. But from the outside, we may not have known just how powerful that voice is. There's a scoop in your book involving Justice Sotomayor's opinion in a pivotal case on Affirmative Action. What are we talking about here?
BISKUPICOkay, that's a good question because, first, we should let listeners know what the case was.
BISKUPICIt was in October 2012 the justices took up a case brought by a young white woman by the name of Abigail Fisher against the University of Texas Austin. She had not been accepted for admissions and she believed it was because of the fact that she was white and that the school had given preference to some minorities. That case is heard, the justices suggesting their question from the bench, that they think the University of Texas had gone too far. But we wait months and months without a ruling.
BISKUPICAnd finally at the end of June 2013, the justices issue an opinion. Sonia Sotomayor is actually with the majority saying that the Texas case should be sent back to a lower court for more scrutiny, but it keeps in place Affirmative Action. And what I found out in my reporting was that she had actually initially written a very fiery dissent to an opinion by a conservative majority that would have rejected the University of Texas program and actually undercut Affirmative Action on campuses nationwide.
BISKUPICBut through a series of compromises pushed by her and worked by other justices on both the left and right, the conservative majority retreated to an extent and ended up with a much milder opinion. So she essentially worked to save Affirmative Action for another day. But nobody would have known of that or any hint of it unless I had found that out, but also unless -- until they had seen what she did just this year in a separate Affirmative Action case, where her dissent didn't win the day. And then we saw strands of that earlier one in this Michigan case that you're probably familiar with.
NNAMDIYes. Race issues were very much at the forefront nationally at the time. Can you remind us of what was happening when the Supreme Court took up the Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin because a lot of people on both sides of the issue was speculating that the Court was rollback precedent on this.
BISKUPICThat's exactly right. And in part because of what we had said earlier in the hour, Kojo, is that this conservative majority really feels that the time has come to stop race-based classifications. Chief Justice John Roberts believes that those were part of another era, that America has moved on, that race no longer matters that way. And he has said the way to stop discriminating on race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.
BISKUPICAnd what she -- what Sonia Sotomayor has said, joined by every liberals on the Court -- is that race still matters. And in the Michigan case I referred to from just this year when she did dissent and make that public, she said race matters because of the snickers, the slights, the things that happen to people of color that suggest to them they do not belong. And in that dissenting opinion out of this Michigan case that I've referred to, she was speaking in the third person. But as those of us who've heard her speak publicly might believe she was also speaking very much from personal experience.
NNAMDIAnd in that Fisher case, probably because she was in the majority, it may have been the single most significant contribution that she has made so far on the Court. Her role was not known until now because her step did not clear on that final decision. Had that dissent -- that scathing dissent she had written been allowed to appear, it would have what?
BISKUPICI think it would have really rattled the place and rattle the public as happened the following year. You know, many people don't know how the Supreme Court works. They take -- they hear a case in public, and then they take a vote in private and they continue their dialogue on paper through a series of private drafts that we do not have access to until some justice passes away and has left his or her papers to the Library of Congress.
BISKUPICBut we don't know what's going on behind the scenes. And in my book, I make the point that I still don't know the full story because I didn't see all the documents. A majority of justices did tell me what went on. But when I asked, what did she actually write that got so much attention? A couple of justices said, wait until you see what emerges in this new Michigan case, because in that one you will see the force of her opinion come through.
BISKUPICAnd a couple of them said, it was a dissent that only she could have written with her background from the Bronx, as a minority, she's obviously the only justice who ever grew up in the projects.
NNAMDIIndeed. What kind of odds do you think Soto -- Sonia Sotomayor had to overcome to reach the Supreme Court coming from a working class Puerto Rican family in the Bronx? Give us a call, 800-433-8850. We're discussing Joan Biskupic's new book. It's called, "Breaking In: The Rise of Sonia Sotomayor and the Politics of Justice." You can also communicate with us via email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Shoot us a tweet @kojoshow or go to our website, kojoshow.org, ask a question or make a comment there.
NNAMDIAffirmative Action is clearly one area that Justice Sotomayor has strong feelings and, as you pointed out, personal experience. She won admission to Princeton University in part thanks to Affirmative Action policies, a fact she does not shy away from addressing. In the past, she's called herself an Affirmative Action baby. Her attitude significantly different from her Supreme Court colleague Justice Clarence Thomas.
BISKUPICThat's exactly right. Justice Clarence Thomas has felt very stigmatized by Affirmative Action, both as a personal matter and then also on the law. He votes the exact opposite as she does. He doesn't want race-based programs, even ones that would benefit minorities. And he felt after he went through Yale, the same school that Sonia Sotomayor went through, that he was stigmatized and that he had trouble finding a job because many people believed that he had only gotten into Yale because of the color of his skin.
NNAMDIThere was a moment from her law school days that perhaps shed light on the kind of justice Sonia Sotomayor would become. Tell us the story of her encounter in law school with a recruiter from a big law firm.
BISKUPICYes. Okay. Well, go back to 1978, which coincidentally is the year of the Bakke affirmative action by the Supreme Court. So, again, she's there at these pivotal moments of history. So she's in her third year at Yale Law School and a recruiter comes and takes a group of students out to dinner. And one of the recruiters says to her, "Did you get in -- do you think you got into both Princeton and Yale simply because you were Puerto Rican?
BISKUPIC"And what happens when a law firm takes a chance on someone who's a minority and then it doesn't work out? Isn't that all just a waste of time?" And she was so insulted. She tried not to show it at the dinner, but after the dinner she went back and she talked to several friends and she talked to several professors. And this is 1978. And some people actually gave her advice not to rock the boat. Don't complain, just suck it up and, you know, go to the interviews and just get a job and move on. Don't be cast as a troublemaker.
BISKUPICAnd she thought and thought. And she decided, no. I want to protest this. He didn't know what my background was. He didn't know that I had achieved honors at Princeton and that I had been on the Law Journal at Yale. So she challenged this firm at Yale. And was successful. They were barred from recruiting on campus for a year. And that took some guts in that era.
NNAMDIThat's who she is. On to Hannah, in Silver Spring, Md. Hannah, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
HANNAHHi. I just wanted to make a comment about the fact that Sonia Sotomayor, in addition to being a Latina justice, is bringing an element of female. She's a -- for feminism. She's a woman. The intersectionality between Latina and women and I, you know, I'm a student of gender studies at my university. And we read many articles about how she -- women like her are very much needed to bring that component of just beyond white, cisgender women. And I just wanted to get Joan's comments on that and see (unintelligible)
NNAMDISomething that she seems to be keenly aware of.
BISKUPICThat's an excellent point because we've now had four women on the Supreme Court. It began with Justice Sandra Day O'Connor in 1981, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 1993, Sonia Sotomayor in 2009, and now Elena Kagan in 2010. But the only one who has the additional experience of being a member of a minority community was Sonia Sotomayor. And she does act differently and bring that forward.
BISKUPICIn fact, I think she probably sees herself first as Puerto Rican, second as woman. Obviously, merged together in this Latina voice or as she once referred to the wise Latina woman. But the caller's exactly right, that that brings a perspective that the other three did not have.
NNAMDIAnd we'll talk about how she invokes her culture into Supreme Court events after we take this short break. When we come back we'll talk again with Joan Biskupic. She's a legal affairs journalist with Reuters, and author most recently of "Breaking In: The Rise of Sonia Sotomayor and the Politics of Justice." If you have got questions or comments, give us a call. 800-433-8850. What do you think diversity brings to the Supreme Court? How important is it? I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest is Joan Biskupic. She's a legal affairs journalist with Reuters and author most recently of the book, "Breaking In: The Rise of Sonia Sotomayor and the Politics of Justice." Sonia Sotomayor shook things up on the Court from the start, including her first party celebrating the end of the Court's term. Can you tell us about that by reading from Page 5 of your book?
BISKUPICOf course. Thank you. "Chief Justice John Roberts began the festivities with a Jeopardy-like trivia contest. The three clerk teams, named Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness, fielded his queries, as an aid kept score on a whiteboard. Next, the musical spoofs began. Law clerks, the young, mostly Ivy-league trained lawyers who assist the Court, assumed the roles of the nine justices and poked fun at their foibles. The clerks kept these parodies tame.
BISKUPIC"Certain expectations of decorum permeated the marble palace, as it has been called. Precedent and consistency were valued in the justices' relationships, as well as the law. Justice Sotomayor was about to upset those expectations. As the skits were ending she sprang from her chair, turned to the law clerks and declared that although their musical numbers were all fine enough, they lacked a certain something. With that, a law clerk cued salsa music on a small portable player and Sotomayor began dancing. She took quick steps forward, then back and turned, then went forward, back again.
BISKUPIC"The Cuban and Puerto Rican inspired rhythms were as new to this setting as the justice who was dancing. For her salsa partners Sotomayor first grabbed a few law clerks, who, it became clear, had arranged this diversion with her. Then she beckoned the justices, starting with Chief Justice Roberts. A buttoned-down man who rarely shed his suit jacket at the Court, Roberts was reluctant, looking terribly uncomfortable.
BISKUPIC"The audience was apprehensive. By tradition, this was an event where the law clerks performed and the justices watched. Roberts decided to be a good sport. He got up and danced with her, briefly."
NNAMDIJoan Biskupic reading from her book, "Breaking In: The Rise of Sonia Sotomayor and the Politics of Justice." Some felt she challenged the Court's decorum. Do we know what her colleagues on the Court think of her?
BISKUPICWe do. And that was -- those paragraphs were pretty hard for me to craft because -- you know the reality because you work with a small group of people here. You can have your differences on personality, but when it comes to actually producing the show or deciding the law of the land, you're going to close ranks. And some of her colleagues find her a bit out there, a bit bolder than the usual type because, of course, she is. But they respect her and they can roll their eyes when they're all on the bench together and she is dominating arguments.
BISKUPICAll of us reporters have seen them do that, but yet, as I said, on the law their differences come down to the substance. It's the personal personality things and the group dynamic where she most can get her colleagues going.
NNAMDIIt's not just substance in her case, it's style because she stands out among her more straight-laced colleagues in other ways, in oral arguments. Can you talk about her style and how that works for or maybe against her?
BISKUPICWell, just think of her -- I like to view her through the lens of sort of the second generation wave of people who were pioneers in their area. Thurgood Marshall came on the Court. And, you know, he's coming on in the '60s. He's a pioneer on the law. And he's playing it fairly safe in their conferences and in the way he looks out at the world. Ditto for the two female justices who preceded her. They were quite reserved in their personal style, but they were also, you know, a half generation or more older than her.
BISKUPICShe's born in 1954. She's part of kind of a break-out movement, both in civil rights and in terms of the women's liberation movement, where she feels that she can -- she doesn't have to conform to some of the norms that women who came before her did. And she sort of kept it in check for the confirmation hearings. But once those were over she thought, I'm going to be myself. And, as I say, many people regard her as so authentic about the way she talks about, you know, her childhood of eating delicacies.
NNAMDIThey've called her the people's justice.
BISKUPICOh, yeah, can you…
NNAMDIAnd this was very clear on her book tour. What kind of appeal does she have with the public, with women, with Hispanic? Her book tour offers a glimpse of her personal charm and charisma.
BISKUPICI followed her around San Juan. And people lined up for six hours to see her at this one particular shopping mall. They're hanging over the railings looking at her as if she's some sort of rock star. And she has referred to herself as, you know, kiddingly as kind of a rock star and her people out there. It's not like anything I've ever seen with any other justice.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Here is Rico, in Germantown. Rico, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
RICOGood afternoon, Kojo. Thank you for taking my call. I just wanted to comment on what it is from Justice Sotomayor, being from the South Bronx, to help her overcome. And myself, being from the South Bronx, what helped me overcome was being able to see past New York City. And then having the desire to improve because once that desire got instilled in me and I was exposed, there was no stopping me. Of course, I didn't go to law school. I'm a retired veteran, but now I have my own consultancy and it's my determination to improve, to keep moving forward. And I believe that's what Justice Sotomayor has.
NNAMDIWithout a doubt.
RICOAnd not forgetting where we come from. I still cook my Latin cuisine. I still listen to my music and I display my heritage proudly. I don't wave it or don't throw it in anyone's face. It's just a matter of not forgetting where you come from. And I believe that's what she has and I admire that.
BISKUPICYeah, the caller nailed it. That's exactly what she's all about, is that she is Puerto Rican. She's Latina. She revels in that. But she's also a striver. And she's so ambitious. She was -- nobody gets to the Supreme Court by accident. And she saw a path for herself. And she made sure -- as our caller was talking about his own background -- she made sure she had the credentials, but she also made sure she didn't leave behind what she -- how she started.
NNAMDIFrom a young age, Sonia Sotomayor faced stereotypes and bias as a Hispanic, as well as outright bigotry. Can you read a little bit from Page 13?
BISKUPICYes. And this begins where she is watching the Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York City, which is a -- was an annual spectacle that ran for hours up Manhattan's Fifth Avenue. And people would watch it at the scene, but then also, as I say, on TV. And, you know, it was known for some political agitation. You know, the Nationalist Young Lords and other demonstrators would often throw bottles and bricks. And the event could get quite raucous, but it was also quite celebratory.
BISKUPICSo that's the scene. And I write, "Once, when Sonia Sotomayor was watching the parade on television at the home of a friend, her friend's father made a remark that startled her and stuck with her. She remembered him saying, 'Aren't those disgusting people.'" And then I say, "References to those people were not new to this Puerto Rican growing up in the Bronx. She had heard bigoted comments before, sometimes whispered, sometimes spoken loudly, as at this moment.
BISKUPIC"Sotomayor stood up and turned to her friend's father. 'Those people? They're my people. I'm Puerto Rican,' she said as she walked out. Even as a girl she had a way of declaring her identity in the bluntest terms. If people got in her face, she got in theirs. When white taunted this Latina, who sometimes traversed their neighborhood, she fought back with fists.
BISKUPIC"As she grew she remembered the slights by people who had doubted her classroom ability because of her ethnicity. Sometimes she raged quietly when she felt the sting of prejudice. Other times, in more formal settings, she went public with her complaints. As Sotomayor established her place, beginning with the conflicts she navigated with her mother and father, and then with classmates and teachers, she developed strategies for taking on a world that might have dismissed her as one 'those people.'"
NNAMDIIt never ends. When President Obama nominated her, some said she was not up to snuff, not as smart as she thinks she is, as one legal scholar quipped. It seems she spent her life proving herself.
BISKUPICAnd she still feels it. She said at the time that those attacks, those comments were quite painful and she felt that she was doubted only for the reason that she was Hispanic. She had been a lower court judge for 17 years. She had gotten through Princeton and Yale. She felt like she had proven herself. But even now she says that she can still feel doubters and she feels the need to affirm what she stands for.
NNAMDIHere is Mike, in Alexandria, Va. Mike, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MIKEHi, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call. It should be worth mentioning that your guest there said that she was the only woman on the Court with a minority background. But I don't think that's fair to Justice Ginsburg and Kagan who are Jewish and much (unintelligible).
BISKUPICOh, that's a good point. Right.
BISKUPICThat's right. Thank you.
NNAMDIYou make a good point.
NNAMDIWe move on…
NNAMDI…therefore to Patricia, in Washington, D.C. Patricia, you are on the air. Go ahead, please.
PATRICIAThank you for taking my call. Can you hear me, Kojo?
NNAMDIYes, we can.
PATRICIAYes. I want to say I'm a black girl from Harlem. And I am so very, very proud of Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who is a (unintelligible). And I'm just so very proud of her, as a woman and as a person of color. That's all I wanted to say. And also, I went to Social Work School with your son.
NNAMDIYeah, that would be the School of Social Work at Howard University. Thank you very much for reminding me about that. What kind of pressure did and does Sonia Sotomayor face between assimilation and expressing her own identity and culture? I'm thinking, for example, about her experience at Princeton, all the way to the commentary she got over her personal style when she was nominated, bright red nail polish, hoop earrings. How does she balance that?
BISKUPICYou know, it's an age-old balance, I think, for people who walk that line, who have to decide how much to I want to continue to stand out, continue to be different and how much do I want to act like I'm fitting in? And as the -- as America has gotten so much more diverse -- again during her lifetime -- I think it's been easier for her. She says that she approaches cases from a lawyerly judicial fashion. She has distinguished her approach from that of Thurgood Marshall.
BISKUPICShe says, "I'm not a storyteller in the conference room, about my personal background. I'm not flame thrower. I'm trying to be a judge, just as I was on the lower courts. But clearly, when she leaves the marble confines, she's something much different. And her story resonates with people like no other justice.
NNAMDIThe many sides of Sonia Sotomayor. You can find them all in Joan Biskupic's new book. It's called, "Breaking In: The Rise of Sonia Sotomayor and the Politics of Justice." Joan Biskupic is a legal affairs journalist with Reuters. Thank you so much for joining us.
BISKUPICThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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