Sonia Sotomayor: A justice for all

February 28, 2013

It’s fewer than 250 miles from the New York City apartment building where Sonia Sotomayor grew up to the Washington offices of the United States Supreme Court where she now works.

But if you asked her how she went from being a sick little girl whose father died when she was just 9 years old to being only the third woman and the first Hispanic person to serve on the nation’s most important court, she wouldn’t say she got there by car or by bus or by train.

She’d tell you she got there by hard work.

March is Women’s History Month and Justice Sotomayor, who has just written “My Beloved World,” a book about her life, agreed to talk to KidsPost readers about her story and what it’s like to be a judge.

The justice greets visitors to her large, light-filled office in the Supreme Court building with a big smile, twinkling brown eyes and a booming voice. This is an office where some of the most serious work in the country gets done, so she has a sculpture of Abraham Lincoln near her desk to inspire her. But it’s also the office of a woman who grew up reading Nancy Drew mysteries and who appeared on “Sesame Street” to talk about what a career is. So mixed in among all those serious law books on her shelves are stuffed dolls of Elmo and Big Bird and three books featuring the famous girl detective.

Deciding to be a lawyer — at 10!

When she was just 7 years old, Justice Sotomayor was found to have diabetes, which meant she had to receive daily shots to handle the disease. She learned to give them to herself. Just a few years later, her father died, but she never let her difficult childhood discourage her.

“What I faced may seem significant to some kids, but so many kids experience even greater difficulties,” she says. “Life can be hard, whether you lose a parent or lose a friend when you’re young or you suffer diabetes or sometimes kids have cancer. Or sometimes you have a parent who can’t be giving to you the way you would want. So many kids have these moments and sometimes it seems overwhelming . . . but it doesn’t have to stop you from having a full, rich life. You just have to work to get past it.”

And work she did. Justice Sotomayor remembers watching a television show called “Perry Mason” with her mother. In the show, the Perry Mason charachter was a lawyer and even though she was only 10, Justice Sotomayor thought she might like to become one when she grew up. So she “did activities in school that I thought were a bit like a lawyer so I could test it out,” including public speaking and the debate club. Still, not all her teachers believed she could achieve her dream.

“My eighth-grade teacher wrote in my yearbook that I had the ‘unusual desire’ to be a lawyer. I think she was a little suspicious of my dream,” Justice Sotomayor remembers with a laugh.

An important lesson for life

A lesson she learned as a young girl is one that she still uses today. “I know how to say, ‘I don’t know.’ I think that one of the worst mistakes that not just kids but many adults make is being ashamed of admitting they don’t know something.”

Because her parents came from Puerto Rico and her father spoke no English, she grew up speaking Spanish at home and didn’t truly get comfortable reading and writing English until she was in about the fifth grade. It was that year that she went to one of her classmates “and asked her, ‘How do you study?’ . . . Throughout my school days and now, even as a justice, if I don’t know something, I ask.”

An historic job

Justice Sotomayor was a lawyer and judge until she was appointed to the Supreme Court by President Obama in 2009. There are nine justices on the Supreme Court, which has the final say on deciding how the laws of the land work. In history, just four women have been justices. The first was Sandra Day O’Connor, who retired in 2006. Justice Sotomayor serves with the two other women, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan.

So what does a justice do all day?

It’s a question that makes her laugh a deep, throaty laugh. “If I tell kids that, they’ll think it’s so booooring,” she says drawing out the last word to about four syllables. “I read. I research. I write. I edit. It can be boring if you’re not excited about what you do. But I’m studying and writing about the most important legal issues of our country. And so my studying and writing is exciting to me.” She stops talking, as if not quite convinced that kids will find what she does interesting.

“But I also get to do things like throw out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium or even appear on ‘Sesame Street’ to talk about what being a judge is. So the fun parts of my job are really talking to people about what I do and the law and the Constitution, and all those things are exciting to me.”

She is a long way from where she started out as a young girl, but as she chats with her assistants at the court, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, a woman who is making history, seems right at home.

JUST FOR FUN: The justice’s favorite sport, book, ice cream flavor.

— Tracy Grant

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