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 Obama, 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.

The overwhelming sense one takes from this account is that Sotomayor’s life has been a series of high windows, casual glimpses into worlds of which she knew nothing — from television lawyers to high school forensics classes to college applications to law firm interviews to federal judgeships — followed always by a decision to jump through, to learn, to emulate. Her life has been about mastering something that was wholly foreign to her.

The young girl who learned to carefully listen grew into a woman who time and again devoted her considerable energy to hearing opposing views and attempting to understand what she missed the first time. “Build bridges instead of walls” is the lesson she took as a struggling affirmative action student at Princeton. That’s an apt description of the work of her life.

It is nearly impossible to read “My Beloved World” without comparing it with the only other deeply personal autobiography by a sitting Supreme Court justice, Clarence Thomas’s 2007 memoir, “My Grandfather’s Son.” Each jurist was shaped by early experiences of racism, poverty, family tragedy, affirmative action and persistent self-doubt. Each was essentially raised by a larger-than-life grandparent. Each is a pure embodiment of the American dream. But where Thomas concludes that he triumphed despite the relentless condescension of elitists and racists, Sotomayor argues that she succeeded only because of the patience and generosity of those who helped her along.

Thomas eventually came to believe that Yale Law School had “tricked” him. Of his degree, he wrote, “I’d graduated from one of America’s top law schools — but racial preference had robbed my achievement of its true value.”

Sotomayor also encountered cynics who thought she wasn’t smart enough to have been admitted to Yale on her own merits. Her response? “I had no need to apologize that the look-wider, search-more affirmative action that Princeton and Yale practiced had opened doors for me. That was its purpose: To create the conditions whereby students from disadvantaged backgrounds could be brought to the starting line of a race many were unaware was even being run.”

As a result, Thomas’s heartbreaking autobiography reads as a list of betrayals and traps. Sotomayor’s story reads as a series of lucky chances taken.

If there is one aspect of Sotomayor’s story that is truly striking, it’s her rather awkward tendency to confront her doubters and detractors head-on, to ask exactly why they don’t like her. From the juror who admitted after a trial that he objected to her because “I just don’t like brassy Jewish women” (though Sotomayor isn’t Jewish) to the Marxist girl from a rival high school who confessed that Sotomayor was “always open to persuasion” and without core principles, Sotomayor never doubts her capacity to see what others see. And even when she doesn’t like the answer, she takes the lesson for its own truths: “To remain open to understandings — perhaps even to principles — as yet not determined is the least that learning requires, its barest threshold.”

Perhaps because she has always known that there are “two ways of viewing the world,” Sotomayor has had to spend most of her life adjusting lenses. That is what made the childless judge — she admits she was afraid to have children because of her diabetes — so adept at imagining her way into the eyes of a child. Her ability to temper anger with empathy allowed her to understand, while grieving, the death of her drug-addicted cousin from AIDS. Sotomayor says she succeeded with juries precisely because she learned to see her cases through their eyes.

Granted, it’s a tricky proposition to attempt to see the world from multiple vantage points, and judges can get it wrong when they try. (That’s why empathy-deriders never stop calling for judges to be mechanical umpires and dispassionate robots.) But Sotomayor feels that her life has been a sequence of efforts to understand others before passing judgment, and in her telling, this act of persistent imagination becomes the very opposite of bias.

The life of the judicial “empathy standard” lasted all of about three months in 2009; it ultimately died for lack of a champion. Sotomayor’s memoir may not mollify those who criticized her for once suggesting that sometimes a “wise Latina woman ” might arrive at different conclusions than other judges. But credit her with this: Although she said at her confirmation that what’s in a jurist’s heart doesn’t matter, she has spent her life imagining her way into the hearts of everyone around her.

Dahlia Lithwick is a senior editor and Supreme Court correspondent at Slate.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor will discuss her book at the George Washington University Lisner Auditorium, 730 21st St. NW, on Friday at 7 p.m. Tickets are $30 and include a copy of the book, or $40 for a book and two tickets.


By Sonia Sotomayor

Knopf. 315 pp. $27.95