U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and us

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and us

April Xu met with Justice Sonia Sotomayor and the experience gave her much to think about before and after

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(From left) April Xu Xiaoyi with Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
Photo: April Xu Xiaoyi

SETTING: Our Beloved World
CHARACTERS: All the people in it
SCENE: Pomona College, Claremont, CA


Prologue

Thursday, 3.30 pm - I walked out of my international relations class, trying to put aside the heaviness sparked by the discussion on the Rwanda genocide and other ethnic conflicts. The first floor of Carnegie Hall — that classy building resembling the White House to some degree, and home to the politics and economics departments at Pomona College — was quiet.

I slipped into the pair of dark blue heels reserved for special occasions, and walked down the stairs, step by step, hearing the clear echoes of my heels hitting the ground. It was a perfect autumn afternoon in Southern California: the sky was azure, the breeze mild, the temperature moderate. And I was meeting a United States Supreme Court Justice in roughly fifteen minutes.

The venue was right across from Carnegie. My parents, who were visiting from China, waved to me as I crossed the street. In front of me stood Alexander Hall, where I work every Friday (at the Office of Communications). Inside it, I would find the Justice’s marshals evenly distributed across the space, each looking very serious.

Indeed, the Justice herself, during the public talk that evening, described them as “the very professional-looking men and women in suits who are here to protect me from me instead of from you”.

“Are you the Justice’s student escort? This way.”

Yes. I arrived at the area next to the school president’s Office, waiting for the door to open. Well, technically, the door was not closed in the first place, allowing me a peek at the people inside: College President David Oxtoby, Professor Amanda Hollis-Brusky from the politics department (who would be interviewing the Justice onstage at the public event in the evening), Professor Gilda Ochoa from the sociology and Chicano/ Latino studies departments (who would be leading a discussion with Justice Sotomayor in a 40-student master class in a few minutes), and Dean Miriam Feldblum.

The door was not yet wide open enough for me to catch a glimpse of the Justice herself. And so prolonged my eagerness and anticipation.


First Impressions

3.51 pm - She was walking out of the room with a personable smile, after much suspense. Sonia Sotomayor, Supreme Court Justice. Wow!

We shook hands and exchanged greetings, wit the camera capturing this magical moment. Justice Sotomayor asked me about my year and major, shared her perspective on double majoring, and talked about her “eventful flight” the night before as well as her visit to the Sotomayor School in Los Angles in the morning, just prior to her visit on our campus. We walked side by side.

I did not feel nervous at all as I gave that brief 2-minute tour of Alexander Hall and Smith Campus Center for her; rather, I felt extremely comfortable, and adored how the Justice was so curious about everything around us, constantly asking questions like “What’s that building?”, “Where are you taking me now?” and “And what do you use that room for?”.

I revere her sense of curiosity, something that is clearly evident throughout her autobiography My Beloved World, a candid reflection on her life prior to the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS). Although too much curiosity may kill the cat, sufficient curiosity, as Justice Sotomayor has demonstrated since her early childhood, could be a positive personality attribute to have.

Truly, even though my time to interact with her this closely was very limited, I could safely agree with the popular notion of how she is known as “the People’s Judge” of the Scotus (just to name two examples, it might be difficult to imagine a Scotus Justice shopping at Costco or making an appearance on ABC’s daytime talkshow The View in front of 2-3 million viewers, but these were precisely what Justice Sotomayor did).

Along this brief stroll on a cozy autumn afternoon, we shared lighthearted moments, such as was when Justice Sotomayor joked that she would not wear my heels at school. Then she imagined what it would feel like to go to school here in this close-knit liberal arts college in Southern California.

Having watched some of her televised interviews, I have observed a general trend where she tends to comment on other ladies’ heels, which reminds me of her honest remark that a sense of fashion has been wanting in her own case (something that resonates well with my personal experience).

Also known for being highly efficient, Justice Sotomayor literally did not waste any second during our precious time together, opting to sign my copy of My Beloved World on the elevator using a special blue pen of hers. Before we knew it, we had arrived at our destination: Room 208 of the Smith Campus Center, which was already packed with students, faculty and staff members eagerly anticipating the Justice’s arrival.


Scene One: The Master Class

Unity clap: noun - Defined as “a slow crescendo of group clapping”, the unity clap once helped Latino and Filipino farm workers unite, despite their language barriers. That day, the unity clap both opened and concluded the one-hour master class with the Justice, bringing together our mini-community in a symbol of solidarity.

Students, observed Professor Ochoa, who led the discussion and collected questions from students prior to the event, are most interested in advice from the Justice. Given the tone of the book and her status, students wanted to hear about how Justice Sotomayor navigated different aspects of her life.

About half of the participants submitted a couple of questions in advance, some of which helped shape the questions that Ochoa was asking. In this way, she tried to steer the conversation with Justice Sotomayor in a direction which would match well with the questions that the participants were most keen on asking.

The professor described her first impressions of the Justice, whom she met at the President’s Office right before the master class.

“She appears very down-to-earth, very disarming. She asked if the staff members at the President’s Office and the photographer would like to pose for a picture with her, which I think was great. She was very interested in Pomona College, our policies regarding undocumented students, and the Claremont Consortium”.

Compared to the public event whose audience totaled around 2,200 people, the master class was much more intimate. Many of the participants were student leaders of groups including QuestBridge (a program that links high-achieving, low-income students to Pomona and other top colleges in the nation), IDEAS (which stands for “Improving Dreams, Equality, Access and Success”), the Claremont Journal of Law and Public Policy (for which I serve as Senior Editor this year).

We appreciated how Sotomayor shared her stories, insights and advice with us candidly, despite the obvious constraints of her status. A couple of students, in their pre-submitted questions, called her a “trailblazer”. Upon hearing this phrase, Justice Sotomayor paused for a second, and said that she is not a trailblazer, and instead went on to emphasise the role played by everyone who helped and supported her on her path to success. It was another great example of her humility.


Flashbacks

Reading Days just prior to Finals’ Week, May. Admittedly, I was in full nerd mode, hectically studying for my exams at the Romance languages library. That was when an email that excited me for months arrived in my inbox. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor was to visit Pomona College on the 22nd of October this year. Thrilled, I got up immediately to pick up my “first year book” from the Dean’s office.

Each year, Pomona College selects a guide that the incoming first-years will discuss with peers, faculty members and the community at large during Orientation Week. Although primarily designed to help new students who have just got to know some of their new classmates and professors to engage in “deeper” conversations, the first year book is also a community book that strives to connect the College community together through intellectual dialogues. First-years would get their copies from their home mailboxes, whilst current students, faculty and staff can pick up free copies on campus before summer officially starts.

Shortly after My Beloved World came out, Professor Hollis-Brusky got a copy. “I was so struck by the tone and how personal it felt,” she said.

As a scholar of constitutional law and theory, American politics, and legal institutions, who co-founded the Southern California Law and Social Science Forum, Hollis-Brusky loves the law and has spent most of her adult life studying it. She is nicknamed the “politics equivalent of Beyonce” by students who try to express her flawlessness as a professor.

While she admits that it is sometimes a struggle to get through some of the other Supreme Court Justices’ books, she considers Justice Sotomayor’s autobiography “a page turner”. As part of her preparation for her conversation with the Justice, Hollis-Brusky reread the book with a few themes and questions in mind: questions that would be of interest to the students, particularly first-years.

In addition, she also spent almost every spare moment she had watching “hours and hours of the Justice’s interviews on YouTube”. While doing so, Hollis-Brusky timed Justice Sotomayor’s responses to find a pattern.  Justice Sotomayor apparently has an internal clock, and usually uses either 3.5 minutes or 6 minutes to answer a question. Hollis-Brusky then spent a long time crafting the questions to ask the Justice, based on her observations of what has been successful in soliciting more genuine and interesting responses from the Justice.

“It was a big emotional investment,” commented the professor, “I was very mindful of the questions I was crafting since I will be representing our community — it is not just about me. I want her responses to be as interesting and inclusive as possible.” The more she watched Justice Sotomayor, the more comfortable she became.

Professor Ochoa also devoted a lot of time and energy in preparing for the master class that she was to lead, “thinking about it and even dreaming of the conversation”.

Having taught courses in sociology and ethnic studies (Chicano/a-Latino/a studies) for more than 20 years now, she pays special attention to themes that relate to her field. “We all read books with lenses shaped by our interests and academic knowledge,” she said. “The things that emerged for me in My Beloved World were intimately related to the work that I do.”


U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor speaks during an event at the University of Richmond School of Law.
Photo: AP


Scene Two: The 2,200-People Community

When you have 2,200 people sitting together in an auditorium, you bring a community together. Sure, out of the 2,200, the percentage of people who know their neighbours at the venue is relatively insignificant. As a liberal arts college that takes pride in our close-knit community and close interactions with faculty members, Pomona has a student population of 1,600. That evening, everyone — Pomona College students, faculty, alumni, family and staff — congregated here with the same intention: to listen to the story of an amazing woman, and to be inspired by her. That evening witnessed the happy gathering of a community at large.

The public event featured thirty minutes of a conversation between Justice Sotomayor and Professor Hollis-Brusky, who started the dialogue by labelling the book as “pretty radical despite the lovely title and the smiling, disarming portrait of you that we see on the cover”. The Justice admitted the amount of risk she took by exposing herself to the public, which would render her vulnerable.

Not only is it radical for a sitting Supreme Court Justice to write so openly and intimately about her path to the Supreme Court (“an institution shrouded in mystery and cloaked in secrecy — where nine men and women emerge in dramatic fashion from behind a velvet curtain clad in long black robes to deliver their rulings on matters such as access to health care, marriage equality, citizenship status, employment discrimination, and religious freedom” — as Prof. Hollis-Brusky eloquently phrased it to all Pomona first-years at the Orientation), the purpose of the book itself is also groundbreaking. “Although told through deeply personal stories, anecdotes, and recollections, I think this book is actually deeply political – and purposefully so,” said Hollis-Brusky.

As a Supreme Court Justice, Sotomayor cannot take a political stance. She cannot say that she endorses Affirmative Action, for instance. Yet, Hollis-Brusky sees the writing of the book itself as a political project, a strong endorsement of the kinds of programs that brought her in.

To quote a powerful metaphor from My Beloved World: “The first to scale the ivy-covered wall against the odds, just one step ahead of ourselves, we would hold the ladder steady for the next kid with more talent than opportunity.” Indeed, the Justice’s autobiography is partly about access: by taking the risk of writing it, Justice Sotomayor is offering access to students of underrepresented backgrounds to achieve their own dreams. Her story is one that shows the world how one should not mistake opportunity for talent, nor let the lack of opportunity be mistaken for the lack of talent.

Many students who read My Beloved World brought up related, big-picture issues like structural racism. However, some were critical of the seeming disconnect between the first part of the book on Justice Sotomayor’s modest upbringing and the second (where she was launched into a corporate law world, travelling with the Fendi family in Rome and doing elitist/upper-class activities). While she acknowledges being an outsider, students saw the lack of real, powerful self-reflections on the two worlds.

One of the aspects that some Pomona students were also slightly sceptical of is her assertion that you can always resolve things by being a quiet pragmatist in conforming and compromising. A question that mirrored this concern was raised during the Q&A portion of the event.

The Justice responded by saying that “we used to think that there is one cure for cancer and we are going to find it, but now we know there are multiple types of cancers and there are different ways to attack each one.” In political engagement, there is no single strategy that is going to be the best in solving every problem, so we should look at each problem and attack it using different ways.

I thoroughly enjoyed everything the Justice had shared with the Pomona College community about her identity as a latina of color sitting on the bench and her experience as a former first generation and low income college student. One of the themes that stood out to me the most was her candid discussion of the “Imposter Syndrome”.

Justice Sotomayor, who might come across to anyone as extremely confident, admitted that she did not always feel a sense of belonging when she started school at Princeton, Yale Law School and during her career. For her, Princeton’s gothic architecture was a fantasy, so different from the environment she came from. Fortunately, like many of us, the Justice was able to overcome these initial difficulties with others’ support.

Somewhat surprisingly, she also mentioned the worsening of the imposter syndrome when she joined the Supreme Court, citing her colleagues’s jaw-dropping level of intelligence and breadth of knowledge, ranging from the Constitution to opera.

Although our personal backgrounds can be very different from that of the Justice, we certainly can identify with her, for there are many challenges that we embrace in life: academically, professionally, and personally. We can feel intimidated by our long to-do lists, a tough assignment, or a strange surrounding that we do not perceive as genuinely welcoming. Yet, as the Justice puts it (having walked off-stage to join the audience to engage with us in a more intimate fashion): “You’re there for a reason — you’re there to do something that’s unique to you.”

It doesn’t matter if we are cultured differently or have grown up in a distinct way. From what I learned from the Justice, we need to compare us to ourselves, not to others around us.


Epilogue

In our beloved world, there is a giant marble temple which, curiously, is not as dated as it looks. This building, accented with white marble and abound with symbols like Moses holding the Ten Commandments, features spiral staircases winding along the wall up several floors, desks adorned by quill pens, 60,000 volumes in an oak-paneled library, and of course, closed rooms far removed from the people and insulated from public opinion.

Nine people, each appointed by the President and expected to outlive the President’s legacy by two or three decades, deliberate in secret inside that Corinthian-styled temple which strives to embody its motto: “Equal Justice Under Law”.

Thirty-six steps lead up to this prominent symbol of justice itself in a nation. Yet for individuals aspiring to sit on the Bench, the steps are innumerable.

For more than a hundred years, only white, generally wealthy men were able to reach that Bench; over the past decades, women and people of colour have joined them to become Supreme Court Justices.

And while the Court is no longer solely composed of white males, its traditions still persist. In its Dining Hall, for instance, Justices are seated by seniority on the Bench. The centre chair is always occupied by the Chief Justice, whilst the Associate Justices alternate left and right by seniority.

The Court today is, in many ways, homogenous. The Justices all have an Ivy League education and all served exclusively as judges in their career — unlike previous Supreme Court Justices who served as politicians for many years. Whilst one may argue that this homogeneity is good, it also limits the Supreme Court’s connections with politics outside of this marble temple. As the first woman of colour to obtain this much coveted position, Justice Sotomayor is, in many ways, a trailblazer who bridges the gap between the Court and the public by staying connected with her communities: her beloved world.

Our beloved world.

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