By Sonia Sotomayor, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, N.Y., 313 pages, $27.95
Justice Sonia M. Sotomayor’s memoir is an inspirational story which reminds her readers that, in all of us, there is a sense of what might be, of what is possible. By now, her humble beginnings and strength are well known. What makes the book special, however, is the author’s frank admission of her own failings and how she has struggled to overcome them. Appellate practitioners seeking insights as to her judicial proclivities will find the book a fascinating read.
Self-reliance is a constant message throughout the book, beginning with the author’s compelling prologue. At age 8, she was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. However, her parents had difficulty giving her the daily insulin injections. Sensing her parents’ discomfort, the author asked to be trained to sterilize the needles and inject herself. Looking back now, she writes that the regimens she learned as a child in managing her blood sugar taught her the discipline she needed to tackle future challenges.
The author richly details her Bronx girlhood in the 1960s. Although her father’s alcoholism ripped the family apart, the author speaks candidly of how his early death produced a healing that brought her, her mother, and her brother closer together. This part of the narrative is affectionately supplemented by vivid recollections of the author’s paternal grandmother and many aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends. Not all the memories are happy ones, but the time and place formed her sense of community.
One of the central figures in the book is the author’s mother, with whom she has a complex relationship. The author speaks in reverent tones of the many sacrifices her mother endured for her children, such as paying Catholic school tuition. With pain and regret, however, she states that there has always been a "distance" between mother and daughter in substance, personal style, and temperament. In recent years, she writes that she has taken responsibility to bridge the gap.
The author’s description of her Princeton undergraduate years is a study in adaptability. As an early affirmative action candidate, the author felt fortunate for the opportunity. At the same time, however, she writes that her background left her ill-prepared for life at an elite university which did not seem to know what to do with this new type of student. But with hard work and a deep involvement in various student groups, the author graduated summa cum laude. Her counsel to minority students today is to resist the temptations of "self-segregation." Accept "support and comfort" from your community, "but don’t hide in it."
Mentorship is a recurring topic, and the author is generous to the many who helped guide her, especially Judge Jose Cabranes. She poignantly describes the void which is felt by a young person who grows up "without proximate living examples of what she may aspire to become[.]" The aspiration will likely remain remote and abstract until the void is filled. The author stresses the significance of a "role model in the flesh" to provide the necessary encouragement. As a budding lawyer of Puerto Rican heritage, the author found such a mentor in Judge Cabranes.
As recounted by the author, she has experienced many disappointments, including divorce, failure to receive an offer of employment from a prominent Manhattan law firm after a summer clerkship, and encounters with discrimination. Time and again, however, these experiences helped her to develop the maturity necessary for one who passes judgment over others as a profession.
After law school, the author became a prosecutor in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. She speaks glowingly of Robert Morgenthau and her many bureau chiefs during her five-year tenure there. Practitioners who have been questioned by the gruff and confident "Judge" Sotomayor will perhaps take perverse pleasure in reading that the newly-minted "ADA" Sotomayor was petrified of the courtroom, felt intimidated by adversaries, and was clueless as to what her first trial judge meant when she announced that "voir dire" would take place the next morning. The author also enlivens this portion of the book with war stories from several of the major crimes which she prosecuted, including murder and child pornography cases.
At age 30, the author entered into private practice with the Manhattan law firm of Pavia & Harcourt. If she aspired to be a federal judge, this was a masterstroke career move. According to the author, the firm enabled her to learn the civil side of the profession in a commercial practice that not only included the representation of Fendi and other significant clients, but also included nurturing colleagues such as Dave Botwinik and Fran Bernstein. She also mentions that the firm was supportive of her community efforts on behalf of LatinoJustice (formerly PRLDEF) and the New York City Campaign Finance Board.
These wide-ranging professional experiences would prove vital when, at age 36, the author was nominated for a federal judgeship. Politicians and judicial screening committees are understandably uncomfortable with the prospect of green lawyers ascending to the bench. The interviews are tough and intimidating, staffed by experienced lawyers from the public and private bars. But, by her account, the author weathered these interviews with assiduous preparation and a confident attitude. In one memorable passage, she recounts that one questioner asked, "Don’t you think learning to be a judge will be hard for you?" She responded by stating that she had spent her whole life learning how to do things that were hard. She further stated that at Princeton, Yale, the DA’s office, and the Pavia firm, it had been hard for her at first, but she quickly learned to survive, adapt, and prosper. She also reminded her doubters that the mere accumulation of years does not guarantee wisdom.
The book ends in 1992 when the author was sworn in as a federal judge. As a first memoir, it constitutes a success, although it could have used an index. Readers will no doubt await the sequel.
Jeffrey Winn is a partner at Sedgwick.