A welcoming staff greeted more than 700 attendees, many of whom patiently waited for over an hour among the blossoming trees gracing the campus at St. John's College in Santa Fe. As a security precaution, people with bags had them sniffed by a canine trained to detect explosives. They'd come to hear U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor discuss her autobiography My Beloved World and, as it happened, dispense aphoristic life lessons about “being who you really are.”
Questions about current politics, rulings on cases that are before the court, or that could come before the court were verboten, leaving personal reminiscences and general observations about the state of “the law” as the main subjects for the lively and crowd-pleasing discussion.
School President Mark Roosevelt introduced the 61-year-old Justice as “garrulous, curious, convivial and incredibly generous” and jocularly promised to “question her like she's never been questioned before.” But given the restrictions on the discourse, most of his queries were what might be termed “lifestyle” questions, e.g. about influential books, on being a lifelong outsider, about being prepared for life's contingencies, gender differences in asserting one's voice, and affable musings about white male privilege. To this last she confessed: “I'm a little envious. It's nice to live a privileged life; it makes things easier.”
Feeling the crowd's approbation, Sotomayor descended from the stage to walk among the people seated in the crowded rows, who seemed to increasingly warm to the story of the little girl from public housing in the South Bronx, a girl afflicted with juvenile diabetes, who somehow found purchase in the American dream and had made it her own. “I have a job for life,” she said with a smile.
As U.S. Marshals actively roamed the Student Activities Center protecting the Justice, her responses to the president's softballs, as well as the pre-approved student questions from the “Johnnies,” and a few more from random audience members were met with frequent bursts of applause, cheering and even the occasional cry of “Que viva, Sonia!”
“When I was young, I used to hear people say 'money can't buy happiness,' she told the mostly well-heeled audience. “And I thought, that's something I'd like to find out for myself.“ Sotomayor, who has received over $3 million in advances from her publisher Alfred A. Knopf for her best-selling book, looked content indeed as she ably related personal anecdotes, at times re-encapsulating events described in her book.
She told the crowd about the example provided by her cousin Nelson who as a youngster “went the way of drugs, AIDS, and early death;” about her days as a corporate trademark lawyer when she had to wear a bulletproof vest to bust Chinatown gangs for distributing faux Fendi pocketbooks; and about how growing up, she preferred reading books to watching television. “TV wasn't really my thing. I couldn't relate to The Donna Reed Show,“ she stated. “That just wasn't my experience. I didn't even go to Yonkers, one town north, until I was in high school.” And when her neighbors traveled on vacation, it was to Puerto Rico, where they had come from.
Given her roots, one bold questioner tried to ask the Justice a substantive question on immigration law. “It's an important societal question,” Sotomayor admitted, perhaps with some regret that the court-imposed restrictions had stifled these kinds of interesting questions so relevant to the New Mexican audience. “But, I'm muzzled.”
The most challenging aspect of her job she said was “how hard it is to decide cases. None are easy, and the answers are never as clean as you want them to be. Every decision means that someone has lost; they've lost a right they thought they had, or a claim they hoped would be upheld.”
The evening's final question was about singularity, and was posed by a student who said she was often the only African-American female in her classes. “It is hard,” Justice Sotomayor confessed, offering her own hard-won nugget of empathy and acceptance. “There are people who will perceive our life experiences as valueless...as long as you don't.”