O: At the end of the day, despite her faults, your mother raised a Supreme Court justice and a doctor. How was she able to do that, basically as a single mother?
SS: She will tell you that she did it by not interfering. What she says is, "I never tried to steer you away from the things you wanted to do that were not bad for you. When you said, 'Mom, I want to go away to college,' I didn't know anything about that, but I knew it wasn't going to be a bad thing, so I supported you."
O: You also write that your mother valued education highly. When you were at Cardinal Spellman, she went back to school to become a registered nurse.
SS: She taught me my values, and my mother's values are incredible: education, honesty, discipline, and hard work.
O: When you were admitted to Princeton, there had not yet been a single Latina graduate. What was it like being a Latina on campus in the '70s?
SS: Well, there were maybe 15 Latinos in the whole school. We tended to gravitate to each other, if only because when you feel like you've arrived in an alien land—which is how I describe my first few years at Princeton—you seek out comfort from those who are similar to you. One of my messages in the book to minority students, even today, is that it's important to draw strength from your community. All of us need the comfort and security of that which is familiar. But then use it as a springboard to explore the world; don't isolate yourself in what you know.
O: That's really important.
SS: I have always been actively involved in my community, belonging to organizations that promote the interests of Latinos. But I also know that the issues we confront are the same issues, in many respects, as the larger community. So what we do helps not just us but everybody.
O: In the book, you write: "I didn't know I had a sense of limitation until I got into the greater world." What in that world made you feel your Puerto Rican-ness, your Latina-ness?
SS: When I was nominated to the Supreme Court, one of the many attacks I faced was that I wasn't smart enough. That statement has followed me in every step of my career. Is she good enough? Is she smart enough? At each stage there's been a sense, sometimes, that because you might have had a different life, that because you may have grown up poor, that defines you—and that you don't have the capacity or ability to achieve without a little extra help. That people have had to cut you a break so that you can be successful. I daresay that I'm looking at you, Oprah, and that you have experienced the same.
O: A little bit [laughs]. But you know what, I have actually loved it, because I've been underestimated every step of the way, and it's so exciting when you can prove them all wrong.
SS: Oh, it is wonderful. When I first became a judge on the district court, I had one lawyer who came to argue before me, and he was looking off to the side as he was talking. I started asking him questions, and all of a sudden he whipped around and looked at me intently. I could see in his eyes that he had finally figured out, "This is no dummy, I'd better pay attention." It is satisfying to see that.
O: What did you think when you heard President Obama was considering you for the Supreme Court?
SS: I thought he was crazy. No, seriously—I am not a betting woman, but I kept telling my friends, "He's never gonna pick me." Not in a million years. I'm very rational, and I'm another New Yorker—at the time there were a few others—and I'd had a very contentious nomination to the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. I couldn't figure out why he'd elect to go into a battle over me. And so I was in total disbelief when I was called that day.
O: Was it something you'd aspired to, the Supreme Court, or ever thought about?
SS: The minute I began to understand the importance of the Supreme Court, which really wasn't until law school, I also understood how unlikely it was to become a justice. It's said that you have to be struck by lightning. So it's not something you can live your life aspiring to. In the deep, deep recesses of your fantasies, you think, "Wouldn't that be cool?" But really, it's just a fantasy.
O: So when he called you...
SS: I was at home. I'd had an interview with him earlier that day—it was the first time we'd met—and he told me that he'd call to tell me his decision.
O: That he would personally call you.
SS: Yes. His staff had sent me home to New York to pack, just in case he picked me. I was standing in my dining room, the phone rang, and the first thing I heard was, "This is the White House switchboard operator; please wait, the president's coming on the line."
Next: What President Obama said in that phone call