Sonia Sotomayor v. tradition: Can charisma move the court?
The party celebrating the end of the Supreme Court’s annual term is an exclusive affair. Festivities are staged in two majestic rooms, facing each other across a red-carpeted hallway. Formal portraits of the nation’s chief justices, all men, line the oak-paneled walls. Crystal chandeliers hang from the gilded ceiling. In one elegant room, silver trays filled with food and drink are laid out on white linen-covered tables. A grand piano sits in the room across the hall, where the entertainment takes place. Each year, the law clerks’ write and present musical parodies.
In June 2010, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, a Bronx-born Puerto Rican, was about to attend her first such party. The nation’s first Hispanic justice had joined the Supreme Court the previous August, a 2009 appointee of the nation’s first African-American president.
Sotomayor had already shown herself to be a different kind of justice. She was more social than the others, kicking up her heels at parties that made the gossip columns. When she danced with actor Esai Morales at a National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts gala, pictures of her in a shiny black jacket and pants went viral. Ditto when she donned a New York Yankees jersey and threw out a first pitch for her adored home team. She reveled in the attention.
A few weeks earlier, she had returned to the Bronx as the guest of New York City officials. They had renamed the housing project where she grew up: Bronxdale Houses had become the Justice Sonia Sotomayor Houses.
Now she was back at the Supreme Court for the culmination of her first term. After the guests filled their plates, they took seats for the entertainment. Sotomayor sat near the front, as did Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Justice Antonin Scalia, an easy target for the clerks’ parodies with his exaggerated mannerisms, secured a spot along a back wall. Roughly 200 guests crowded in.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. began the festivities with a Jeopardy-like trivia contest. The three-clerk teams — named Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness — fielded his queries as an aide kept score. Then the musical spoofs began. Law clerks assumed the roles of the nine justices and poked fun at their foibles.
The clerks kept these parodies tame. Expectations of decorum permeated the Marble Palace, as the Supreme Court building is called. Precedent and consistency are valued in the justices’ relationships as well as in the law.
Sotomayor, however, was about to upset those expectations. As the skits were ending, she sprang from her chair, turned to the law clerks and declared that, though their musical numbers were fine, they lacked a certain something. With that, a law clerk cued salsa music on a small portable player. Sotomayor began dancing.
She took quick steps forward, back and turned, then repeated it. The Cuban- and Puerto Rican-inspired rhythms were as new to this setting as the justice who was dancing to them. For her salsa partners, Sotomayor first grabbed a few law clerks, who, it was clear, had arranged it with her. Then she beckoned the justices, starting with Roberts.
A buttoned-down man who rarely shed his suit jacket at the court, Roberts was reluctant. He looked terribly uncomfortable. The audience was apprehensive. Traditionally, this was an event where the law clerks performed and the justices watched. Roberts decided to be a good sport. He got up and danced with her. Briefly.
Sotomayor’s barrel-ahead style clashed with the court’s usual order and predictability. The institution operates on a down-to-the-minute schedule. Everyone knows his or her place, which corridors are open, which are closed. Steady, quiet rhythms control, reflecting the ideal of consistency in the law.
But now a justice was dancing salsa in a room where formal portraits set the tone. Sotomayor’s hips swayed to the beat of the distinctive drums and horns.
As she sought out partners, nervous colleagues danced a bit, one by one, then retreated to their chairs. Justice Anthony Kennedy, six foot two and favoring dark suits with coordinated tie and pocket handkerchief, did a jitterbug-style move. Justice John Paul Stevens, the oldest at age 90, got up, too. But he felt as if he had two left feet and quickly sat down, happy to watch Sotomayor move on to other partners.
“Where’s Nino?” she shouted toward the back. Scalia started to shake his head. There was no way he was going to dance. But then he did, sort of. Justice Samuel Alito, tall and shy, looked even more awkward when Sotomayor got to him. He resisted.
But the rest of the audience was into the spectacle now. They were standing up, laughing and whooping. So Alito danced a little bit. Then Sotomayor went toward Ginsburg, whose husband, Martin, had died three days earlier after a long illness. She did not want to rise from her chair, but Sotomayor whispered that her late husband would have wanted her to dance. Ginsburg followed in a few steps. Then she put her hands up to Sotomayor’s face. Holding her two cheeks in her palms, Ginsburg said, “Thank you.”
As the program closed and people began leaving the room, emotions were strong. It had been a difficult term, and Sotomayor’s enthusiasm was catching. Scalia, who could shake things up in his own way, joked as people passed him near the doorway, saying, “I knew she’d be trouble.”
But some people were not as amused. They thought the new justice was calling too much attention to herself, revealing a self-regard that challenged more than the court’s decorum. One justice and one top court officer said separately that it was too much blurring of the lines between the clerks, who traditionally took the stage at the party, and the justices, who sat in judgment in the audience.
But that was Sotomayor. She had spent a lifetime challenging boundaries and disrupting the norm. This episode testified to why it was she who became the historic first at the Supreme Court. She was not one to wait her turn.
She had the intelligence and perseverance to do what no other Hispanic had done. A child of housing projects who graduated from Princeton University and Yale Law School, Sotomayor’s life tracked the ascent of Latinos in America. She was born in 1954, the year of Brown v. Board of Education, which ended the doctrine of “separate but equal” and opened schools to blacks and Latinos. It was also the year of Hernandez v. Texas, which marked the first time the Supreme Court held that the Constitution protected Latinos from discrimination with the same force as it protected blacks.
Sotomayor’s formative years in the 1960s and 1970s coincided with the civil rights efforts of Puerto Ricans and other Latinos. She went from a timid schoolgirl who kept her head down to an assertive woman who learned to maneuver in a predominantly white male world, gaining admission to top schools partly through racial and ethnic preferences. “I am,” she said early in her career, “the perfect affirmative-action baby.”
Her appointment might be compared to that of the first African-American justice, Thurgood Marshall, the civil-rights giant who developed the strategy leading up to Brown v. Board of Education. President Lyndon B. Johnson had appointed the chief counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to the court in 1967, as part of a broader civil-rights program. Johnson had been the force behind the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act and sensed that public attitudes about race were shifting.
But any comparison between Marshall, a first-generation civil-rights advocate, and Sotomayor, heir to the Latino pioneers who came earlier, goes only so far. While Johnson was on the cutting edge, President Barack Obama’s choice of the first Latina felt overdue. For years, decades even, presidential candidates had been vowing to appoint a Hispanic justice. In 2009, when it finally happened, Hispanics represented 16 percent of the U.S. population.
She also did not tamp down her heritage or personality. She was not someone who “happened” to be Puerto Rican. She talked of eating such island specialties as pig intestines. Her unvarnished approach sometimes discombobulated associates, but it also conveyed an authenticity, even a vulnerability, that drew people to her.
In her early years at the Supreme Court, Sotomayor elicited intense admiration alternating with annoyance for her garrulous, forceful style. She was a different model at an institution where justices, as a group, have been relatively bland and socially conforming, even as they differed radically on the law. What passed for flamboyance at the court would generate a yawn in other venues. For example, when Roberts’s predecessor as chief justice, William Rehnquist, put gold stripes on the sleeves of his black robe in 1995, mimicking a Gilbert and Sullivan character, it made national news.
Sotomayor’s voice has been heard in a memoir, “My Beloved World,” that has sold hundreds of thousands of copies. She connects with people beyond the Washington Beltway as no other justice has. People reach out to hug her. She is a magnet, especially, for children.
She attests to the dreams and aspirations of America. It is in the national fiber to believe someone can come from nothing, work hard and become something. But Sotomayor’s rise has not been without adverse reactions. The justice appointed for life still has her doubters, and it remains to be seen how she will answer them over time.
As Sotomayor challenges presumptions about how justices act and enlarges their place in the American mind, it may be that the personal characteristics that propelled her to this moment in history prevent her from being most effective. It is not clear that the popularity she has achieved outside the court can be matched by a persuasive ability within its marble walls.
She has begun to make her mark, primarily by seeking fairer procedures for criminal defendants. Her writings reflect the knowledge earned in a big-city prosecutor’s office and years presiding over trials, as well as the more personal experience of being a Latina.
As surprising as Sotomayor’s salsa dancing was at her first end-of-term party, some justices say it now seems to have reflected the core of her character. She shakes up the proceedings and confronts her colleagues in their private discussions of cases.
When she asked them to dance, they did. On the law, however, they may be less likely to follow.
Excerpted from BREAKING IN: The Rise of Sonia Sotomayor and the Politics of Justice by Joan Biskupic, to be published Oct. 7, 2014 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2014 by Joan Biskupic. All rights reserved
PHOTO (TOP): Supreme Court nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor takes her seat for her fourth and final day of testimony during her Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings on Capitol Hill in Washington, July 16, 2009. REUTERS/Jason Reed
PHOTO (INSERT 1): Book cover. Courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux
PHOTO (INSERT 2): Supreme Court nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor testifies during her Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings on Capitol Hill in Washington, July 14, 2009. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
ILLUSTRATION (INSERT 3): CAGLE CARTOONS/Taylor Jones for El Nuevo Dia.
PHOTO (INSERT 4): Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor speaks during a question-and-answer forum at the Museo del Barrio in New York, January 19, 2013. REUTERS/Keith Bedford
PHOTO (INSERT 5): U.S. Appeals Court Judge Sonia Sotomayor steps up to speak after President Barack Obama announced her as his choice of nomination for Supreme Court justice in the East Room at the White House, May 26, 2009. REUTERS/Jim Young
PHOTO (INSERT 6): Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor throws out the first pitch before the start of the MLB American League baseball game between the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, at Yankee Stadium in New York, September 26, 2009. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton