After Justice David Souter retired from the Supreme Court in the spring of 2009, President Obama launched a brief national media freak-out by putting “empathy” at the top of his wish list for his first Supreme Court nominee. Empathy, Obama said, was an “essential ingredient” for arriving at “just decisions and outcomes.”
When he named federal appeals court Judge Sonia Sotomayor to fill Souter’s seat, his “empathy standard” was widely debated and derided by those who saw it as code for every imaginable judicial evil, including bias, sentimentality and, quite possibly, generalized female-ness. Indeed, the opening of Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings saw empathy itself put on trial, with the Judiciary Committee’s ranking Republican, Sen. Jeff Sessions (Ala.), expressly warning that “empathy for one party is always prejudice against another.”
Faced with the charge that she was too biased and emotional to properly impose the rule of law, Sotomayor used the hearings to distance herself from the president’s empathy standard. When asked whether she agreed with Obama’s claim that in some small percentage of cases, “the critical ingredient is supplied by what is in the judge’s heart,
” Sotomayor replied with an emphatic no: “Judges can’t rely on what’s in their heart.
. . . It’s not the heart that compels conclusions in cases, it’s the law
.” The empathy standard was thus laid to rest in July
2009, never again to be invoked by
Sotomayor or anyone else.
That’s unfortunate, because Sotomayor’s big-hearted autobiography, “My Beloved World,” is nothing if not a powerful brief in defense of empathy, her long-awaited closing argument in the trial of Mind v. Heart.
Readers looking to mine this book for clues about the justice’s legal philosophy will be disappointed, as Sotomayor promises from the outset. Her narrative ends as she is sworn in to the lower federal court, and she discloses little about her politics or jurisprudential views. But anyone wondering how a child raised in public housing, without speaking English, by an alcoholic father and a largely absent mother could become the first Latina on the Supreme Court will find the answer in these pages. It didn’t take just a village: It took a country. Sotomayor offers up a tale of a sprawling “family,” generous mentors and the many opportunities she has grabbed and paid forward.
At least half of “My Beloved World” is a love letter to Sotomayor’s South Bronx childhood, toggling from past to present tense, full of cousins and poems and food, all of it held together by an adoring grandmother. But her father’s alcoholism and the emotional retreat of her mother eventually changed Sotomayor. What emerges is a portrait of a hyper-vigilant child, uncertain of the adults around her, who learns early that the best way to cope is to “listen carefully and observe until I figured things out.” She also realized quickly that she would need to do for herself what she might have expected from adults.
So we meet the diabetic Sotomayor, at age 7, sterilizing needles to inject herself with insulin because her father couldn’t do it with his shaky hands;struggling to conform to the rules of the strict Catholic school her mother insisted she attend; learning to read English books in the lonely time after her father’s death; refusing to speak at law school until she is certain she knows the answer; figuring out too late why her brief marriage failed.