Sonia Sotomayor
Photo: Rob Howard
SS: He got on the phone and said, "Judge, I have decided to make you my nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court." Now, I don't cry. But the tears just started to come down. My heart was beating so hard that I actually thought he could hear it. I realized I'd put my right hand to my heart to try to quiet it. It was the most electrifying moment of my life. The next day I was walking to the East Room at the White House, where the press statement of my nomination was about to happen, flanked by the president and vice president. They have longer legs than me, so I whispered, "Please wait." And they turned around and smiled and waited for me to catch up. In that moment, I had an out-of-body experience. I was so overcome with emotion; I knew that if I stayed within my body I couldn't deal with what I had to do. So it was like all of that energy came out of my body and started watching me from up here [motions to the sky].

O: You had to let some of it go, because it wouldn't have been good to start crying in that moment.

SS: And I lived like that for about a year and a half! [Laughs.]

O: Out of body.

SS: Well, everything was so extraordinary after that. It was almost like my emotions and my body weren't quite connected for a while. It took a long time to come back to Earth.

O: President Obama asked that you make him two promises. They were?

SS: To follow the advice of his team, which I think I did. And the second was to stay connected to my community. My response to him was, "Mr. President, that's an easy promise to make. I don't know how to do anything but."

O: Before your confirmation hearings, when you were suddenly thrust into the spotlight, one quote got you into a lot of hot water. You'd said in a previous speech, "I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life." That was repeated and repeated and repeated. Did you regret saying it, or do you think your comment was misunderstood?

SS: My comment was clearly misunderstood. And it was taken out of context. Anyone who reads the whole speech understands that the audience I was talking to was young people, and that what I was trying to convey to them was that their life experiences had value.

O: That everything you describe in the pages of My Beloved World has value.

SS: Absolutely. In that speech, my rhetoric was imprecise. Because I didn't mean to suggest that others were less. What I was trying to communicate was that we are equal. We bring maybe a different kind of richness, but it's a richness, too.

O: As a Supreme Court justice, what is the role of empathy in your decisions—or do you approach each case trying to be emotionless?

SS: You can't be emotionless. No one can. I don't want to describe the details of some of the crimes we read about; they're barbaric. People in some situations act worse than animals. You can't be a judge if you try to be a robot. Because then you're not going to be able to look at both sides, and hear both sides. At the same time, if you're being ruled by emotion, then you're not being fair and impartial. So what do you do with your emotions? My feeling is that you have to be aware. You have to be aware that you might be angry with a defendant, and then acknowledge and deal with that anger as a person—and consciously set it aside.

O: Would you describe yourself as being tough on the bench?

SS: [Low voice.] Demanding.

O: You're demanding.

SS: Tough, yes, in the sense that I want lawyers to be prepared. I think that being a lawyer is one of the best jobs in the whole wide world.

O: Really?

SS: You want to know why? Because every lawyer, no matter whom they represent, is trying to help someone, whether it's a person, a corporation, a government entity, or a small or big business. To me, lawyering is the height of service—and being involved in this profession is a gift. Any lawyer who is unhappy should go back to square one and start again.

Next: How she copes with the pressure


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