Sonia Sotomayor knows how to lead and when to follow


Win McNamee/Getty Images

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor arrives for the presidential inauguration on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol January 21, 2013 in Washington, DC. Barack Obama was re-elected for a second term as President of the United States. (Win McNamee/Getty Images/MCT)

By Abigale Svoboda

As Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor approached her 50th birthday, she decided to take salsa dancing lessons.

It took courage for Sotomayor to get on the dance floor but it wasn’t out of character.

Sitting in a makeshift living-room-like set up on the stage in Foellinger Great Hall at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, Sotomayor told law professor Robin Kar and the nearly-full auditorium about how she faces her fears — head on.

“I can’t keep a beat,” Sotomayor said Monday night. “Do you know how embarrassing that is in a Latino household?”

Sotomayor quickly realized because she can’t keep a beat, she can’t lead a dance, but she can follow.

“If you can’t move a wall you have to find a way around it,” she said.

But Sotomayor’s problem solving abilities aren’t limited to salsa dancing.

Working in the New York District Attorney’s office, the southern New York District Court and on the U.S. Court of Appeals before being appointed by President Barack Obama to the Supreme Court in 2009, Sotomayor has done plenty of problem solving.

As she once told her niece, Sotomayor believes her job as an attorney is to help people. Sotomayor is one of three women on the Supreme Court and was the first justice of hispanic heritage to be appointed. She grew up in the Bronx borough of New York City and graduated summa cum laude at Princeton University before heading to Yale for law school.

Sotomayor was originally invited to the Urbana campus to judge the law school’s moot court competition alongside Judge Ann Williams, U.S. Court of Appeals for the seventh circuit in Chicago, and Judge Jill Pryor, U.S. Court of Appeals for the eleventh circuit in Atlanta.

After Sotomayor was secured as a judge, the school asked if she would be interested in participating in a Q&A and a signing of her book, “My Beloved World.”

Sotomayor said she decided to write a book about her personal life to give people a glimpse inside her life and how it was changed by her appointment to the Supreme Court.

“I don’t know if anyone fully understands how much of your existing life you’re giving up,” she said.

For example, Sotomayor had to leave family, friends and New York City, where she was born and raised.

Additionally, Sotomayor said writing the book helped her “hold onto” herself. Once she accepted her appointment, Sotomayor was “catapulted onto the world-stage,” which, she said, can become very petty.

Between throwing the opening pitch at Yankee Stadium and meeting 92 U.S. senators, Sotomayor realized the public perception of her and other justices was very different than reality.

“I realized this new road could be very dangerous, if you let it,” she said.

As a result of the public’s idolization of Supreme Court justices —putting the nine on pedestals is a newer phenomenon she said — some of her colleagues are rather reclusive.

Moreover, they’re just people, she said, reminding the audience at some point people will disagree with a decision she makes.

“(The book) was my way of begging forgiveness because at some point I’m going to disappoint a lot of you,” she said.

Kar, who moderated the event and shares Sotomayor’s status as a Yale Law grad, noted how candid she is in her book about being fearful at every new stage of her life; Sotomayor said owning up to fear or accepting hardship is the only way to get past it.

Everyone wants to be the smartest in the room and it’s hard for people to admit when someone is smarter, but even that is necessary to moving forward, she said.

“People who think they are (the smartest) might be, objectively, but they’re not warming anybody’s heart,” Sotomayor said.

When asked what he hoped students would take away from Sotomayor’s speech in an interview before the Q&A, College of Law Dean Vikram Amar said he hoped students would learn a little about the judiciary system and a little more about how Sotomayor got to where she is in her career; but most importantly he hoped students would learn more about what kind of person she is.

“I hope they realize that even at the pinnacle of a profession, people can be really warm and good-hearted,” Amar said.

Sotomayor’s good heartedness may have shown through when — to the dismay of her security detail — she left the stage to walk through the auditorium, answering students’ questions and pausing to take pictures with the youngest audience members — the ones who likely haven’t even taken the U.S. Constitution test yet.

Or it may have been apparent when she spoke about her fellow justice, the late Antonin Scalia.

“Justice Scalia was the brother who, at moments, I wanted to kill, but who I loved,” she said.

Sotomayor said the loss of Scalia is felt every day, only made more evident by the draped chair on the court. Though the two didn’t always see eye to eye, Sotomayor said Scalia was very warm on a personal level, always the first to call if something was amiss in her life.

Sotomayor explained that they were able to remain friends because of their ability to listen to and understand each other’s points of view, even if the discussions got tense at times.

“He once called me a pitbull,” she said. “I wear it with honor.”

Scalia wasn’t Sotomayor’s only friend in the Supreme Court, rather, she said, the family dynamic extends to every member of the court, but it took time to settle in.

In her first year on the court, Sotomayor said she constantly felt like she was walking into the middle of a conversation; the other justices would reference past discussions that weren’t in the briefs or old rulings, and unless someone filled her in she was lost. But eventually, Sotomayor felt the family dynamic she had heard so much about before taking her appointment.

“I have found that they’re right,” she said. “It becomes a family.”

Sotomayor’s biological family has played a significant role in her life and career as well.

She said her mother, who is now 88 years old, taught her that no matter how challenging life becomes, “I have to find a way to stay in the moment.”

Her mom, “an amazing lady,” also taught her how to forgive and see the best in people and situations.

Growing up in the Bronx borough of New York City, Sotomayor said life wasn’t always easy but she and her family were always able to find “something good,” she said. A trait she carried into her adult life and hopes people who read her book will pick up too.

“If you live thinking about the negative, there will never be any positive,” she said.

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