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What It Takes - Sonia Sotomayor

What It Takes - Sonia Sotomayor
What It Takes - Sonia Sotomayor
What It Takes - Sonia Sotomayor
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00:00:00 ALICE WINKLER: When Sonia Sotomayor was little, really little, her grandmother would host a get-together pretty much every Saturday night at her tenement apartment in the South Bronx. While the grown-ups did their thing, the future Supreme Court justice and her cousin would hide out under the coffee table to avoid bedtime and to eavesdrop.

00:00:20 SONIA SOTOMAYOR: And so I got to hear the conversations, to listen to the music, to listen to my grandmother and my father, somewhere in the middle of the night, get up to recite poetry. And they would recite poems that were paragraphs long from memory, and it was always a sort of competition. Who was most dramatic? Who could say it in a way that would engage people the most?

00:00:49 And there'd be a lot of clapping and stamping of feet when they finished. And I didn’t understand all the words because, at least at that age, I was still grappling with learning English, and my Spanish was a child’s Spanish, and these were grown-up poems. But their rhythm, the depth of my grandmother and father’s passion in reciting them. They gave me a lifelong love of two things, words and reading.

00:01:23 Because words are so powerful. They’re instruments that can take anyone to where they want to go. I tell kids all the time, “Through reading, I escaped the bad parts of my life in the South Bronx.” I would run to the library whenever I could and needed a place to hide, and through books, I got to travel the world and the universe. I am still a lover of science fiction, and I’m the first one who went out and bought the most recent Harry Potter book.

00:01:58 It, to me, was a passport out of my childhood, and it remains a way, through the power of words, to change the world. If you can move people through words to do things they might not otherwise be inclined to do, to deliver passion that they might not otherwise have, to get them to step up and want to do more, all of that, I believe, is motivated by the power of words.

00:02:29 ALICE WINKLER: This is What It Takes, a podcast about passion, vision, and perseverance from the Academy of Achievement. And on this episode, I’m very excited to say, we’ve got Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, so sit back, listen deeply, and spread the word. If Twitter’s your thing, our handle is @WhatItTakesNow.

00:02:51 I’m Alice Winkler.

00:02:53 OPRAH WINFREY: "Hattie Mae, this child is gifted," and I heard that enough that I started to believe it.

00:02:58 ROGER BANNISTER: If you have the opportunity, not a perfect opportunity, and you don't take it, you may never have another chance.

00:03:05 LAURYN HILL: It all was so clear. It was just, like, the picture started to form itself.

00:03:10 DESMOND TUTU: There was no way in which a lie could prevail over the truth, darkness over light, death over life.

00:03:17 CAROL BURNETT (quoting CARRIE HAMILTON): “Every day I wake up and decide, today I'm going to love my life. Decide.”

00:03:25 JOHNNY CASH: My advice is, if they're going to break your leg once when you go in that place, stay out of there.

00:03:30 JAMES MICHENER: And then along come these differential experiences that you don't look for, you don't plan for, but boy, you’d better not miss them.

00:03:42 ALICE WINKLER: Justice Sotomayor sat down in December of 2016, to talk about her life, with Nina Totenberg for the Academy of Achievement. Nina, of course, has a day job as the Supreme Court correspondent for NPR, so she has covered every moment of Justice Sotomayor’s tenure. But on that December day, the two women sat in the august Conference Room at the Court, surrounded by portraits of old white men, who, for the first 192 years of the Court’s history, took up every seat on the bench — men from very different backgrounds than that of Sonia Sotomayor.

00:04:23 She began the conversation talking to Nina about the neighborhood where she grew up, a place so notorious for its drug dealers, gangs, and violent crime, it was nicknamed Fort Apache.

00:04:36 SONIA SOTOMAYOR: It was the worst neighborhood in the United States at the time, and it was the South Bronx in New York City.

00:04:44 NINA TOTENBERG: And you saw needles everywhere and...

00:04:47 SONIA SOTOMAYOR: ...drug paraphernalia always in the staircase. In fact, my mom wouldn’t let us go up or down the staircase because she was afraid of things that could be lying around.

00:04:57 ALICE WINKLER: Her mother, who’d moved to New York from Puerto Rico, was a nurse. She tried her best to protect her kids, but she wasn’t ready to face one difficult fact. Her seven-year-old daughter was very sick.

00:05:11 SONIA SOTOMAYOR: And I finally fainted in church one Sunday morning, and the nuns made my mother send me to a doctor, where they immediately diagnosed the diabetes. And my mother, who was a trained professional, at the time understood what the added risk in my life would be, and it did terrify her. In fact, it was not until very late in my life — probably my 40s — when one day my brother called her up because I had called him upset about how agitated she was because I had a cold — a little bit of what I have today.

00:05:55 And because colds can cause complications in diabetics, every time I had a cold, she would get very anxiety-ridden. She was driving me crazy, and my brother called her up and said, "You know, you’ve got to stop this. You’re really upsetting Sonia. She’s going to end up not telling you anything is ever wrong because she’ll be afraid of how you’ll react. And please remember one thing: if she dies tomorrow, she’ll die the happiest person that you’ll ever know because her diabetes has not stopped her from doing anything she’s ever wanted, so don’t you stop her."

00:06:36 My mother actually listened, and since then, I can’t say that her worry has gone away. I’m sure it hasn’t, but she tortures me less about it.

00:06:50 NINA TOTENBERG: All mothers torture their daughters.

00:06:53 In your book, you wrote that diabetes turned out to be — you could never call it a blessing, but it was a disciplinarian for you.

00:07:01 SONIA SOTOMAYOR: Absolutely. I had a child, a six-year-old diabetic child at a conference, once ask me if there was anything good that came out of being a diabetic, and obviously, it’s a condition I have to pay close attention to. I always have to monitor what I’m eating and the insulin I’m taking and what I’m doing and the exercise and whether I’m sick or not. There are constant variables that I have to balance in taking care of myself.

00:07:33 But because of that, it showed me how to be disciplined about my own care, something that a lot of people don’t ever really learn until they’re sick, and it’s a lesson that’s highly important. Look at all the workaholics who work themselves, literally — most of the time, figuratively — to death, but they’re doing it because they don’t realize that the most important machine in your life is your body.

00:08:05 And taking care of it is important for how well you function, and it gives you the opportunity to do everything else that you want to do if you’re watching your own health. And so, for me, that’s been a lifelong lesson. If I take care of myself, I can do anything I want.

00:08:22 ALICE WINKLER: Sotomayor started taking responsibility for her own health, for her diabetes, from the beginning, learning to sterilize her needles and give herself insulin injections.

00:08:34 SONIA SOTOMAYOR: For years, at seven-and-a-half, when I was first diagnosed — because I left the hospital taking insulin, one shot a day back then. Today it’s many, many more shots than that, but back then it was one shot a day, and I would sterilize the needle in a pan. I had to get up on a chair to be able to reach the top of the stove and light it. It wasn’t an automatic stove like today.

00:09:00 I wasn’t in the dinosaur ages, but this was the 1950s, and things have changed a lot since then. At any rate, I had to light the stove, put the pot of water with the needles in it, wait until it boiled — it seemed to take forever — and then remove the water, and let the works — the insulin works, the injection works — cool down before I started to draw the insulin and give myself a shot. It was a process.

00:09:31 NINA TOTENBERG: This was all in pursuit of having your parents not fight over who was going to give you your shot?

00:09:37 SONIA SOTOMAYOR: Absolutely.

00:09:38 NINA TOTENBERG: And getting to spend the weekend with your grandmother, your abuelita, because she wouldn’t give you a shot.

00:09:45 SONIA SOTOMAYOR: My grandmother — she adored me. I willingly admit, and so does every other cousin I have, that I was her favorite granddaughter.

00:09:55 I take that with a great deal of pride and absolutely no sense of humility about it. I was her favorite. But I also knew she didn’t have the heart to give me a needle. It would have been emotionally too tough for her, and what would have ended up happening is I wouldn’t have been able to stay over with her because I needed the shot every morning. And so it immediately became clear to me as soon I left the hospital that if I didn’t learn how to do this right away, I would miss out on that very precious time with my grandmother, and it was something I simply wouldn’t give up.

00:10:31 NINA TOTENBERG: So what did you do with her?

00:10:33 SONIA SOTOMAYOR: What did I do with her?

00:10:35 NINA TOTENBERG: Mm-hmm.

00:10:35 SONIA SOTOMAYOR: We would go to the market together every Saturday morning, and I loved that. She taught me how to pick the freshest vegetables there were, the sweetest fruit. She would point to the color. She would pick it up and smell it and then let me smell it to tell me what smelled sweet and what didn’t. There are different types of smells for different types of fruit.

00:11:00 Even today, you’ll watch me in a store, and only the grocers who know someone who really knows what they’re doing permit this, but I pick up every piece of fruit to smell it before I put it in my basket. It’s a strange thing to watch, but that’s what I do. And then we would go to the live poultry shop, and she would pick out a chicken for our meal that evening. And I would have to stand behind the glass that protected people from the feathers and guts that came out of the chicken.

00:11:36 And watch that they were killing the chicken my grandmother had picked and that we would get the same chicken at the end in a paper bag. And so, that was my job with her. She knew every storekeeper in the neighborhood. She knew every vendor on the street. She taught me how to like people. That’s strange, but to enjoy people, to enjoy interacting with them, to get to know who they are and to understand and appreciate the value of the work they’re doing...

00:12:13 ...that doesn’t come naturally to people, I don’t think. Not everyone possesses that ability, and my grandmother taught it to me. As I watched everyone calling out to Mercedes, which was my grandmother’s name, I understood people cared about her.

00:12:30 ALICE WINKLER: That relationship to her grandmother was especially poignant because her mother was gone a lot for work, and her father was becoming increasingly unavailable as he spiraled into alcoholism.

00:12:44 SONIA SOTOMAYOR: In writing my book, the publisher asked me for photographs, and I went back to a childhood photograph that has hung in my mother’s house since I was about three and my brother was one, and I took the photograph out of its frame for the first time, and in the back was a handwritten message by my father explaining that the photograph had been taken at my brother’s first birthday.

00:13:14 And my brother was just — and my father was describing his tesoro, his treasure, his little boy, and then talking about me and talking about how I lit up his life. And he also spoke about his love for my mother in this — it’s about two, three paragraphs short — and I realized that my judgment that he adored us was true, but his love for us couldn’t stop him from drinking himself to death.

00:13:50 Addictions are an affliction on people who can’t find what they need within themselves.

00:13:58 ALICE WINKLER: Sonia Sotomayor was just nine when her father died, and her mother retreated into her own grief, leaving Sonia and her brother to fend, essentially, for themselves. After many months, she finally broke. It’s a moment she describes in her memoir, My Beloved World, and one she recounted for Nina Totenberg in their conversation.

00:14:20 SONIA SOTOMAYOR: We would come home from school in the afternoon. She would have dinner prepared for us, and she would go back into her room and cry all night. About a year later — I’d let it go on — I let it go on; I’m sounding like I’m some god or something. But my brother and I had been quietly sitting in the house, watching television or reading books — books was my favorite pastime — and I’d just had enough one day.

00:14:52 She locked herself back in the room, and I started to cry, and I went up to the door and started banging on it, and I was screaming at her, "You’ve got to stop this. You’re dying on us, and you’re going to leave us alone. We don’t deserve to be left alone. Please, please, stop!" And I finally just ran away from the door when she didn’t open it.

00:15:20 And I didn’t know, at that moment, what my impact was, but the next morning, my mother woke us up, and she says she doesn’t remember this dress, but it was a black-with-white-polka-dots dress, and her hair was finally properly combed. She had, for the first time in a year, some makeup on, and I knew my mom was back. And that may have been one of the happiest moments of my life.

00:15:50 ALICE WINKLER: She and her brother and her mom were eventually able to move out of the projects with the little bit of money they got from her father’s life insurance policy. They moved to a private apartment complex in the upper part of the Bronx, and it was around that time that Sotomayor, a so-so student, became a better one.

00:16:10 SONIA SOTOMAYOR: I wanted my gold stars. It was a teacher in fifth grade who would reward students who had performed well on their assignments with gold stars. And I wanted gold stars, and I realized that to get them, I had to figure out how to study. And I did something that has helped me my entire life, and it’s something I still do, which is, when I don’t know how to do something, now I start reading about it. Back then, I would ask people for help.

00:16:49 And I have found that if you go to people and ask them for help, that it feels like a compliment to them because everybody likes feeling good and likes doing something for other people, especially when what they’re going to do is easy for them. And so I went to the smartest student in the class, and I looked at her — she’s still a friend today. This is Donna. And I said, "Donna, please tell me how you study. I don’t know how to study." And she said to me, "You don’t know how to study?" She found the question odd but sat down and told me how she studied, how she would read the materials.

00:17:35 She would underline the important parts of it. She would make sure, at the end of every chapter, that she understood what she had read before she moved on to the other chapter. How, before a test, she would read all of the underlined sections to remind her of what she had studied. And so I thought to myself, "Well, that seems like something I can do," and that’s what I started to do, and from a middling student, I went to the top of my class...

00:18:04 ...pretty quickly. Donna, to this day, says that was maybe the worst mistake in her life because I started doing better than she did.

00:18:13 ALICE WINKLER: Better enough that Sotomayor was able to stay at the top of her class and graduate valedictorian. A few months before graduation, her friend Ken, who was also a great student, called her. He’d been urged by a guidance counselor to apply to Princeton, and he'd gotten in. He said, "Sonia, you have to apply to an Ivy League college, too."

00:18:35 SONIA SOTOMAYOR: And my next question was, "What’s that?" He described it as the best colleges in the United States. That was his simple answer. My second question was, “How do I get in?” And he said, "You apply." Which sounds so simplistic, doesn’t it? And almost unbelievable, but I think kids have to understand that we’re talking about an age where there wasn’t the Internet, where really, television programs weren’t as concentrated on education as they are today.

00:19:11 A lot of that started to grow up with me but wasn’t a part of the life I was in at the time. At any rate, he says to me, "You apply. Our guidance counselors will give you the applications." I said, "How much will it cost me?" And he retorted by saying, "Nothing because you’re as poor as I am. You’ll get a scholarship."

00:19:36 I said, "All right. How much are the applications? Do I have to pay for that?" He said, "Same thing. They're going to waive them. Don’t worry. Just apply." So I asked him which ones to apply to. He told me. I applied to them, and lo and behold, I got in. But it was not with an understanding of what I had accomplished. That came after I got in...

00:20:02 I was telling people about where I was going to college, and I could see both surprise in their faces and a sense of — I think the word is admiration, in their eyes. And from there I began to understand that getting into a place like Princeton wasn’t a norm. And it certainly wasn’t expected of a child like me, but it was something that would be important to me.

00:20:33 ALICE WINKLER: Sotomayor ended up graduating from Princeton with honors and winning the highest award the university gives to an undergraduate, the Pyne Prize, but...

00:20:43 NINA TOTENBERG: But the first two years were a real slog.

00:20:46 SONIA SOTOMAYOR: Mm-hmm.

00:20:47 NINA TOTENBERG: So tell me about what the slog was like.

00:20:51 SONIA SOTOMAYOR: I think I will start with the following, which is: I’ve learned very early in my life that if you compete against other people, you’re going to find yourself wanting in some way, especially because none of us are perfect. We’re human beings. We do some things well. We do other things not so well. Other people do some things well and other things not well. But if you put yourself in competition with others, you’re going to find yourself disappointed.

00:21:23 And I figured out a surefire way to avoid that disappointment, which was to figure out what I needed to do, each day, to improve myself — to set my goals not against the accomplishments of other people but to set my goals against what I wanted to accomplish. And so I spent my first two years at Princeton, again, learning how to learn, how to write papers, because I went in from a fairly decent high school but where writing wasn’t its emphasis — multiple choice was, and I was great at multiple choice.

00:22:04 Short answers, I can do fabulously. Longer essays, I had very little practice with when I went to college, and so I had to figure out how to start writing persuasive essays. I also had to figure out how to finally master writing English because I had taken on so many of the grammatical — or grammatically induced — errors of translating from Spanish to English.

00:22:38 And so, what I did was, I went out and bought grammar books from first to twelfth grade. I reread them. I worked with a professor at college who — every paper I wrote, he would circle my errors and explain what I had done.

00:22:55 NINA TOTENBERG: This is after you got a C on your first paper.

00:22:57 SONIA SOTOMAYOR: Oh, I got a C on my first paper, and this is when I knew I had to learn how to write. But my professor, Peter Winn — who is still teaching now — I remember the first words he circled, which were “authority of dictatorship.” “Authority of dictatorship.” And Professor Winn looked at me, and he said, "There are a lot of nouns in Spanish where an adjective is added with the proposition ‘of.’"

00:23:28 In Spanish, we say “shirt of cotton,” not “cotton shirt.” So he said, "This should be ‘dictatorial authority.’ It’s an adjective. You put it before the noun." And I went, "Oh." He said, "Now go back and find all the places in the paper where you did that and fix it." And so that’s what I did. And the next paper — with that lesson in mind, I would write out my essay.

00:23:56 I would go back and correct all of those errors. We did that, paper after paper, error after error, and by the time I finished Princeton, after a lot of papers, I got an A from the reader on my senior thesis, who said that it was the best-written thesis he had read that semester. That was a compliment that I thought I had earned.

00:24:28 ALICE WINKLER: But let's back up here for a sec. The professor Justice Sotomayor was just talking about, Peter Winn, now teaches Latin American history at Tufts University. I found a piece he wrote for The Washington Post in July of 2009 in support of her nomination to the Supreme Court. In that piece, he tells pretty much the same story you just heard, but from the professor’s point of view. So I wanted to take a moment to read from it. Here it goes.

00:24:56 “At Princeton, a tentative teenager, so intimidated that she never spoke in class during her first semester, became a poised young woman who negotiated successfully with top university administrators on contentious issues, such as minority hiring practices. It was also there that Sonia Sotomayor more fully explored her ethnic identity. After conquering Princeton, she is unlikely to be fazed by another institution legendary for its white alpha males, the Supreme Court.” Again, that was Professor Peter Winn.

00:25:32 We are now wending our way to her judicial career and her ascent to the Supreme Court, but I don't want to leave off the Princeton story without one last anecdote about the college roommate who compared her to Alice in Wonderland.

00:25:47 SONIA SOTOMAYOR: Yes. Oh my, gosh, yes. I was talking to her one day about how alien a world Princeton was to me, having come from a very urban environment to a sort of, not rural but suburban existence that Princeton was, being with kids who had grown up in private schools, who spent vacations in places I had only read about, and whom no one in my family ever imagined they could visit.

00:26:24 I was trying to describe to her how alien I was in this world, and she looked at me and said, "You’re like Alice in Wonderland." And I looked at her and said, "Who’s Alice in Wonderland?" And she said, "You haven’t read the book?" And I said, "No." So she looked at me and said, "Hmm. I have it at home. When I go back over the holidays, I’ll bring it back to you," which she did.

00:26:57 But I realized — I asked her when she had read it and she said in grammar school. I then looked at her and said, "What other books did you read in grammar school?" — because in my Spanish home, Alice in Wonderland wasn’t a part of what we read. My mother bought the Reader’s Digest so that we could have some understanding of popular literature, but she didn’t know how to guide me in my classical reading.

00:27:28 So Mary gave me a very long list of books to pick up and read, and, one of my summers in college, I read all those books. And I finally did get to read Alice in Wonderland.

00:27:41 And I felt just like her.

00:27:43 ALICE WINKLER: After Princeton, Sotomayor’s next adventure — “through the looking glass,” you might say, this time — was Yale Law School, which brings up an inevitable question: why law?

00:27:54 SONIA SOTOMAYOR: Well, I am a media child, and the first lawyer I ever knew about was a TV character, Perry Mason.


00:28:09 SONIA SOTOMAYOR: There were no lawyers in the housing projects I lived in. There were no lawyers in my family. We were blue-collar, working-class people, and so professionals like lawyers were not heard of in my circles as a child, but I met my first character as a lawyer by Perry Mason.

00:28:31 And what he was doing, helping people by trying to prove that his clients, in particular, were innocent of the crimes that they committed, seemed like a pretty worthwhile endeavor to me — life endeavor — but what I liked about it was that he was playing detective. He was trying to figure out how the crime alleged was committed and who the person was that committed the crime.

00:29:02 Now, that’s not really lawyering because it was fictionalized.

00:29:07 NINA TOTENBERG: Police work.

00:29:08 SONIA SOTOMAYOR: It’s police work. But the essence of what Perry Mason was doing, of helping his client, was something that, over time, I understood was the mission of lawyering. It’s service to people’s relationships. Every lawyer is trying to help either a person or an institution — whether it’s a private or government institution, agency, or project — into addressing a difficulty that they’re having with another entity.

00:29:46 And when you’re doing that, you’re trying to either better those two entities' relationships — when two business partners go into business together, they’re trying to figure out how to operate together, how to take their competing interests and make them work together to abet a goal. If it’s a criminal defendant in a case, the state is charging that person with a crime.

00:30:14 Whether you’re a prosecutor or a defense attorney, you’re trying to serve the needs of society in ensuring that the prosecutor has proven his or her case beyond a reasonable doubt and the defendant has received fairness in the process.

00:30:30 ALICE WINKLER: That life of service was what she was after. And by the way, Justice Sotomayor was quick to point out that while there were no women lawyers on Perry Mason, there were women judges on a couple of episodes. After Sotomayor graduated from Yale Law School, she headed back to the more familiar terrain of New York City, and she went to work in the Manhattan District Attorney’s office. Her job there was prosecuting the ugliest kind of cases: murder, robbery, assault, police brutality, child pornography.

00:31:03 When she lost her first two jury trials, she did what she had learned to do years earlier — ask for help — this time from her boss.

00:31:12 SONIA SOTOMAYOR: He asked me to go through the evidence of the cases, which I did, and at the end of it, he said, "Well, you have one thing missing." I said, "What? I thought I covered all of the bases. I made the best arguments that I think the evidence would support." And he looked at me, and he said, "That may all be true, but you’re missing passion. You related this crime and your evidence in a very impersonal way. How did you make the jury want to convict?"

00:31:49 I said, "Well, the judge charges them, tells them they have to convict if I prove my case." And he said, "No, finding someone guilty is a huge responsibility. You have to make people believe it’s what they have to do, and you have to make them believe that the evidence you’ve presented gives them basically no choice."

00:32:19 And so, I said, "How do you do that?" And he explained to me that it’s in the manner that you present your case. It’s in the manner that you show how passionately you believe in what you’re doing and in how much you believe that you’ve actually proven your case and that they must return a verdict of guilty. And his words have led me to believe that that passion is what guarantees success in life.

00:32:58 Because that’s what leaders almost always have, is passion about what they’re doing. That passion excites not just them but you, and if you want people to follow, you have to really want where you’re going. And so, it was a lesson that let me not lose another case.

00:33:24 I ended up with two hung juries after that, and in impossibly difficult cases to win, but I didn’t lose them. And I think it’s what’s kept me successful through most of my life, is that sense of believing in what I’m doing to be the right thing to do.

00:33:43 NINA TOTENBERG: So why did you leave?

00:33:46 SONIA SOTOMAYOR: The DA’s office? Because working in criminal law — whether you’re a police officer, a criminal defense attorney, a prosecutor, probation officer, a corrections officer — anyone in that world is exposed often to the worst in people.

00:34:11 Criminals have committed crimes, often horrific crimes. Those crimes have had negative impacts on victims and on entire families, whether they’re the victims’ families or the defendant’s family. You begin, in that world, to see the world not as a good place but as a bad place. And I realized that that’s not how I wanted to spend my life and that I needed to find other work that would take me to more positive places.

00:34:47 ALICE WINKLER: That was in 1984. Sotomayor went into private practice at a small firm, where she mostly worked on intellectual property cases. Then, you remember that story of how her high school friend convinced her to apply for an Ivy League school? Well, in a similar story, 20 years later, one of her law partners changed the course of her life by saying, "Sonia, you have to apply for a federal district judgeship."

00:35:13 NINA TOTENBERG: And you told him he was out of his blankity blank mind.

00:35:17 SONIA SOTOMAYOR: I did. I ignored him, but I told him no one would appoint a lawyer who was only 36 years old to the federal bench. It was a waste of my time. So for six months, he periodically would look up and say, "Sonia, did you get the application?" And I’d say, "David, I told you, it’s useless." I went away for a holiday over Christmas of that 36th year of my life, and I came back, and my desk, which was always stockpiled with work, was empty.

00:35:52 And I looked at my clean tabletop and looked at my assistant and said, "Where’s my work?" And she looked at me, and she said, "Go talk to Mr. Botwinik. I had nothing to do with this." So I go marching into his office, and I say, "David, what are you doing?" He said, "Did you look on your seat?" And I said, "No." So I went back, and on my seat was an application to Senator Moynihan’s selection committee for federal judgeships.

00:36:24 I picked it up, I marched back to his office, I looked at him, and I said, "This is crazy. I’m wasting my time doing this." He said, "Sonia, just do it."

00:36:34 ALICE WINKLER: Which she did, moaning and groaning the entire two weeks it took to get the paperwork done, but just a few weeks later, she got called in for an interview. When she got back to the office, she had to admit, it was the best interview she’d ever given in her life. If they didn’t pick her, it wasn’t going to be because she wasn’t prepared. Well, long story short, they did pick her, which is to say, President George Bush picked her to be a U.S. District Court judge for the Southern District of New York.

00:37:06 Six years later, President Bill Clinton elevated her to the U.S. Court of Appeals. She served there for over a decade, and then, in 2009, she gave the second best interview of her life, as she told Nina Totenberg, this time to President Barack Obama, who was considering nominating her to the nation’s highest court.

00:37:28 NINA TOTENBERG: Could you describe that day when he took you to the East Room to make the announcement? I mean there'd been all this cloak and dagger stuff. I was on the other end of the cloak and dagger stuff, and you were driven in some dumpy little car to Washington. Even your family wasn’t sure. They were getting on a plane, not knowing for sure if you were going to get nominated.

00:37:50 And then suddenly, you’re in the Oval Office, and you’re walking with the president and the vice president.

00:37:57 SONIA SOTOMAYOR: Well, my mother, brother, and his family were in the back with the president and the vice president before my announcement. My brother's talking to the vice president about golf. My nephews are talking to the president about soccer, and I'm standing there, anticipating this big announcement, thinking, "This is just not real. This is really not happening."

00:38:26 And we start walking to the front of the East Conference Room, where the announcement would be made, and they have very long legs. They’re very tall men, and I’m not that tall, certainly not in comparison to them. Their long legs pushed them further from me — or ahead of me — and at a certain point, I whispered, "Please slow down."

00:38:50 And they heard me, and they both turned around at exactly the same time, and both of them smiled at me, and at that moment, it was as if I couldn't contain all the emotions I was feeling, and I had to let my consciousness leave my body and go somewhere up in the air.

00:39:16 PRESIDENT OBAMA: After completing this exhaustive process, I've decided to nominate an inspiring woman who I believe will make a great justice, Judge Sonia Sotomayor...

00:39:29 ...of the great state of New York.

00:39:32 SONIA SOTOMAYOR: But from that moment on until about a year-and-a-half later, I walked around doing things, looking from above down at myself doing them.

00:39:44 NINA TOTENBERG: Including throwing out the first pitch.

00:39:45 SONIA SOTOMAYOR: First pitch at Yankee Stadium.

00:39:47 ANNOUNCER: Throwing out today's ceremonial first pitch is a native of the Bronx and a lifelong Yankees fan. In August, she was appointed the 111th Justice of the United States Supreme Court — and the first one of Hispanic descent. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Justice Sonia Sotomayor!

00:40:12 SONIA SOTOMAYOR: I can still tell you about looking at the crowd but really not hearing the roars.

00:40:20 ALICE WINKLER: Not hearing the roars because she still hadn’t quite come down to earth since the president had announced her nomination, but that very earthly pitch required a lot of preparation. The request from the Yankees came in mid-August, a couple of months before her first Supreme Court term was to start. So she did double due diligence, prepping for her new role on the bench and on the pitcher’s mound.

00:40:47 It was intimidating, but come on, she’d be pitching against her favorite team’s biggest rival, the Red Sox.

00:40:54 SONIA SOTOMAYOR: I love the Yankees, so I was never going to say no, but I had never thrown a baseball pitch in my life, and I realized, "Gee, I don’t know how to do this." So the first thing I did was find friends who knew how to throw baseballs, and they started teaching me how to throw a perfect pitch. A wonderful, wonderful friend on the Court, Kathy Arberg, our communications director, had a friend who was a minor league pitcher, and she got him to come in and show me exactly how to hold the ball and throw it.

00:41:31 And every afternoon for almost a month, I would go outside between the courthouse's building and temporary offices, trailers that they had parked while the courthouse was being renovated. There was an empty space of grass. I would go into that empty space and practice for about 20 minutes to half an hour.

00:41:59 NINA TOTENBERG: Who was your catcher?

00:42:01 SONIA SOTOMAYOR: My catchers were police officers who knew how to play baseball. It was whomever I could find to help me catch and throw. The entire building — you have to understand, I was the new justice, the new baby on the block. The entire building was looking out at the windows at every pitch I threw.

00:42:24 But I threw a pitch down the middle, within the strike zone, on the upper right-hand corner.

00:42:35 NINA TOTENBERG: So not —

00:42:35 SONIA SOTOMAYOR: Practice makes perfect.

00:42:38 NINA TOTENBERG: You’ve come to this court. You’re an experienced judge. You have 17, almost 18, years on the bench — federal bench — and yet you felt like you were drowning. And you kept saying to your colleagues — because some of them told me this: "Does it get better?"

00:42:59 SONIA SOTOMAYOR: There is a different way of looking at cases than when you’re on the lower court. On the lower court, you’re reading what the court has decided and trying to divine what the rule of law is that the Supreme Court has announced, in whatever case it’s issued, and you’re trying to take that rule of law and apply it to a set of facts.

00:43:27 Now, you may or may not agree with a dissenter or with someone who has concurred on a different ground, but you don’t pay as much attention to that because you have to resolve the case that’s before you on the basis of the rules that the Supreme Court has already established. When you get on the Supreme Court, however, it’s a very different enterprise because every case that we’re dealing with is an open question of law.

00:44:02 There is rarely a direct precedent on point, and so what you’re doing is you’re reading all of the Supreme Court cases that inform that decision or help inform it. But you’re reading not just the majority opinions but the dissenters and the concurrences to determine: A) how you think it’s the right way to rule because that ruling is not only going to affect all the existing cases that that case touches upon but also the development of the law in the future.

00:44:38 So you have to know for yourself what the thinking in all of these areas of the law is, in a way that I didn’t have to do as a judge on the lower courts. That’s a huge amount of work. And you want to know how your colleagues think, in case you want to change their minds, or try to change their minds, so you have to understand what bothers them, so you’re reading bearing that in mind with respect to your vote.

00:45:07 How do I present what I’m thinking in a way that might be most appealing to the other members of the Court? That’s a lot, a lot, of work, and it felt absolutely and utterly overwhelming the first three years — not two; three years — on the Court. I was working seven days a week and really had given up any personal life, but I also understand that that’s not the right way to live one’s life.

00:45:41 If you don’t live in the world, it’s very hard for you to be a part of it, and certainly, at least for me, very hard to say that I’m making decisions that affect people unless I’m living part of their life, too.

00:45:59 ALICE WINKLER: And so, after those first three years, when the job began to feel a little more under control, Justice Sotomayor decided to recapture a bit of her personal life. She moved to a condo in a lively downtown neighborhood. She started engaging with the community, eating out more, and she began volunteering in a soup kitchen. Nina Totenberg asked her if those activities affected her views.

00:46:25 SONIA SOTOMAYOR: That’s impossible to answer. I tell people — because I get asked all the time, how does my being Latina affect my decision-making? And I look at people and I say, “Probably no more or no less than every other life experience I’ve had. Sonia is Sonia as a sum total of every life experience that I have engaged in.”

00:46:52 I am no less or no more a Latina than I am a woman, a child of a single mother, a former prosecutor, a former business lawyer, a former whatever you want to say I’ve done. All of my experiences combine to make me the unique person I am, in the same way they combine to make every individual unique unto themselves and to how they view the world.

00:47:24 I happen to think that the more experiences I engage in, the richer a person I am. Just, not only for myself, but richer in terms of what I could ultimately give back to the world. And so, does it affect me? Not in any way where I can say to you, “In a particular case, because I served in a soup kitchen, I ruled this way.” No.

00:47:52 It’s not only because I served in a soup kitchen that I ever rule in any particular way or because I’m a Latina that I make a decision in a particular way. It’s because that conglomerate, that combination of all of that, has led me to be a judge who approaches problems in a certain way.

00:48:16 NINA TOTENBERG: So you are a passionate person. You learned that passion.

00:48:19 SONIA SOTOMAYOR: I did.

00:48:20 NINA TOTENBERG: You come by that passion honestly.

00:48:23 And you have, by now, increasingly, some very firm views on a lot of things that some of your colleagues do not agree with.

00:48:32 NINA TOTENBERG: And you —

00:48:32 SONIA SOTOMAYOR: I dissent a lot, don’t I?

00:48:34 NINA TOTENBERG: You dissent a lot, and in fact, your voice in dissent is much more passionate than your voice when you’re keeping a majority together.

00:48:44 SONIA SOTOMAYOR: Well, but that’s natural.

00:48:44 NINA TOTENBERG: But what’s it like to lose a lot? Does that drive you nuts?

00:48:50 SONIA SOTOMAYOR: Hmm. Does it drive me — what a fascinating question. When I lose on things where I believe the Court has gone grievously wrong, I am sad, not nuts. I’m sad because I know the impact that a wrong decision has, both on the people experiencing the situation — or on how the law is developing in a way that I don’t think it was intended by either our precedents or the Constitution.

00:49:21 But nuts? No, I think, as I understand, fundamentally, that this is a collective process; we have nine voices, each engaging in trying to persuade another. I write my dissent in the hope that, on some day in the future, a majority of the Court will see I was right. I wouldn’t write it unless I thought I was right.

00:49:50 And so I have hope that someday what I said will influence other judges to look at a situation the way I did and to right the path that I got stopped in. So that’s not to say that there aren’t times I’m really upset. There are moments when I’m very, very upset, but I can only continue doing it because I really believe that there’s a potential right down the road.

00:50:25 ALICE WINKLER: That sense of optimism is something Justice Sonia Sotomayor takes pride in, and it leads us to one final question that Nina Totenberg posed to the justice, a question that brings us back to where we started, with her love of books and the power of words. What Nina wanted to know, as they wrapped up their conversation, was which books had influenced Justice Sotomayor’s life the most. Number one, she answered, was the Bible, for its spirituality and its enormous cultural importance.

00:50:57 SONIA SOTOMAYOR: The second was Don Quixote, and that ties in so much to the optimistic part of me, this idea of tilting at windmills, whether they’re real or not, the imagination of them, what fueled that man, that love, that idyllic sort of quest. That can be life sometimes. We don’t always achieve what we end up hoping for.

00:51:28 We can work very, very hard at things and come up short, but I take comfort from having dreamt the dream, from having taken the steps, the quest — to undergo the quest of trying to reach them. If in the end, you don’t, you’ve had the journey, and I always think the journeys are valuable. They give you lessons. They give you memories.

00:52:00 They help you meet people. They help you have an adventure in life. And so, for me, that probably — when I read that book, I understood that I was okay.

00:52:18 ALICE WINKLER: Justice Sonia Sotomayor of the United States Supreme Court, speaking to NPR’s Nina Totenberg for the Academy of Achievement in 2016. This is What It Takes. I’m Alice Winkler.

00:52:35 Funding for What It Takes comes from the Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation. Thanks to them, and thanks to you for listening.


What It Takes is a podcast of conversations with well-known people in almost every field. The interviews have been recorded over the past 25 years by the American Academy of Achievement. They offer life stories of people who have had a huge impact on the world. They offer insights you can apply to your own life.