From behind an imposing wood desk in her office at the US Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor reflects on her unlikely but very American rise from the Bronx to the highest court in the land.
“To be a justice, that was a fantasy, not even a dream because it’s so rare,” Sotomayor — the court’s first Hispanic and third female justice — told AFP in an exclusive interview this week.
“It’s like being struck by lightning — that’s what they currently say about being a Supreme Court justice — so I couldn’t fantasize about that.”
President Barack Obama appointed Sotomayor, the daughter of transplanted Puerto Ricans in New York, in 2009 to the nine-member court that gets the final say on major social and legal issues of the day.
This month, “the Supremes” — as the justices are affectionately nicknamed in Washington political circles — are due to hand down landmark rulings on the constitutionality of same-sex marriage and affirmative action.
Sotomayor, who turns 59 on June 25, got a rough start in life, as she chronicles in her best-selling autobiography “My Beloved World,” published in January.
Born in New York’s rough-and-tumble Bronx district, her alcoholic father died when she was nine years old, leaving her mother (“the inspiration of my life”) to raise her and her younger brother.
Sotomayor displayed an independent streak early in life when she took to giving herself insulin injections after she was diagnosed with diabetes at the age of seven.
She held back tears upon learning of her father’s death, having been told to be strong, but her life was upended later in life when AIDS claimed her “inseparable” cousin Nelson, a heroin addict, before his 30th birthday.
“I talk in my book about how adversity can and does knock some people down,” said Sotomayor, who keeps a portrait of her mother and herself in her office.
“For other people it helps lift us up and gather strength and greater resolve — not just to overcome the adversity but to turn it to something useful and helpful,” she added.
Her autobiography, she said, sets out the ways she either “had to knock the walls down (or) just walk around them and find another way.”
“Everyone finds their own path in life and finds their own way to do things, and what I hoped for in writing my book is giving people alternative ways at looking at things.”
She credits “some measure” of realistic optimism for taking her out of the syringe-littered tenements of The Bronx to Princeton and Yale, then the New York district attorney’s office and US District and Circuit court benches.
“I didn’t do it alone. Nobody does it alone,” she said, in an interview conducted in English and Spanish.
“Some taught me very good things, like my mother and grandmother, but I’ve learnt other very important things from the pain (experienced) by other people I had in my life, like my cousin Nelson.”
“It is impossible to imagine that anyone’s childhood doesn’t inform the life of the adult,” added the judge, who describes herself as “a happy sponge” soaking up all there is to learn in life.
“We are all products of our background and experiences… We are all products of both our parents, of the environment we grow up in. We’re given strength and limited by our experience.”
Divorced at the age of 29 and childless by choice, Sotomayor lives in a one-bedroom condo in Washington’s trendy U Street corridor, where she’s known to drop into neighborhood eateries after a long day at the court house.
Sotomayor’s legal ambitions go back to the days when she watched the venerable legal drama “Perry Mason” on television.
“As a lawyer, you are a person who’s trying to help people to solve their problems,” she explained.
“Doctors fix people physically. Lawyers help people solve their interrelationship problems. That’s really what we do,” she added.
“To me, the act of lawyering was so wonderfully giving, within the skills that I have. I like reading, I like analysis, I like the power of convincing people.”
She continued: “To be a judge was the height of that service because a lawyer has to be an advocate for a client, right or wrong, (while) for a judge, you are actually given the freedom to do what’s right under the law.
“To me, it was being a super-lawyer. You’re the advocate for the system of law. It was my aspiration to be a judge.”
Sotomayor has strong opinions about the work-life balance issue as it relates to professional women.
“I made a choice … that to devote myself to my career in the way I wanted to choose would not, I felt, give a child in my life the kind of attention would be their due,” she said.
“There are plenty of women who make choices to have children and careers and who do it very, very well and balance it very well — but everyone should be given that choice”.
On the bench, however, Sotomayor puts her personal opinions to the side and lets the law be her guide — and that includes cases that involve the death penalty.
“When I’m required by law to impose it, I have affirmed the imposition of death penalty in countless cases,” she said.
On what her legacy will be, Sotomayor — a relative youngster in the Supreme Court, whose members have no fixed term — is circumspect.
“To announce it now is to suggest that I already made up my mind of what the changes in law are that I want,” she said.
But she added: “In terms of a person, if I can inspire young people or people in general to understand the legal system (and) help people become more interested in their civic responsibilities, then I think that I have done a lot and given a lot.”
“There are many people who have told me they thought of the Supreme Court as this entity up there in the clouds… If I can make them see the human side of it, understand its function better, then I think that would be an important legacy.”