Transcript: Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Speakers (In Order of Appearance): Dr. Carla Hayden, CEO of the Enoch Pratt Free Library; Special Guest Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor

Dr. Hayden: Good evening I’m Carla Hayden, CEO of the Enoch Pratt Free Library. (Applause.) And welcome to a very very special edition of our Writers LIVE series. We are so thrilled to see all of you here tonight and the Justice will be here in just a minute because the first thing she wanted to do was give her gratitude to the people in the overflow room in the auditorium and she is now…she thanked them and she told them that those are the people that had the most patience and that now she doesn't have to be in an overflow room so she knows what it's like and then she's doing something that caused those nice gentleman in the suits to kind of prepare a little bit more: she got off the stage and she's shaking hands. (Applause.) So she should be here…as you know we have welcomed Pulitzer Prize and award-winning authors, members of Congress, Oscar, Emmy, Grammy winners, and the Vice President of the United States and the Speaker of the House and newsmakers from across the world…but we have checked our archives, and you know we librarians we like to do that, and this is the first time in the library's history that we have welcomed a sitting Justice of the Supreme Court. (Applause.)

Now tonight's event is a great example and this is a plug for public libraries…continue to be a public forum for civic engagement that brings together people with various ideas and from different backgrounds and we’re proud of that tradition. I want to thank all of the City, State, County, Federal officials that are here today the judicial and legal community is really in the house tonight. The business and community leaders, the members of the Hispanic community who traveled from all over…all over the state. (Applause.) We have students: the University of Maryland law school is here, Princeton grads are here. Everybody's here. So thank you. And programs like this, and this is another thing I have to say because so many of our generous donors to the Pratt Library are here and we are so grateful for their support because these nights would not be possible without them and tonight we’re pleased to announce a new sponsor, One Main Financial, some of you may remember that was Commercial Credit, is a new sponsor of our author series for 2013 and thank you One Main because we'll have more programs like this. (Applause.)

Now just a little housekeeping before the Justice comes down. As you know her book My Beloved World is for sale at our circulation desk with our partners from the Ivy Bookstore…we are so pleased that they are still going, the Ivy Bookstore. (Applause.) It's available in Spanish and audiobooks as well, and all of the books…the Justice came in early her schedule is a little tight, I think she has a few things to do…but she came in this afternoon to make sure that all the books were signed so all the books will be available.

Now we will have, also because of this tight schedule, staff members, could you raise your hands? Staff members who have index cards…staff members will have index cards for questions that you might have and if you could write your questions down and I'm actually going to ask the questions so we will try to get in as many questions as possible.

Now our special guest tonight there are so many things we could say. But some of you saw the 60 Minutes special about her. And librarians all over the country swooned when she said that her two influences were Nancy Drew books and Perry Mason shows that were based on books. But best of all and this is what librarians consider like music to their ears she told The Today Show that she frequented her neighborhood library in the Bronx and in her words “I read everything and anything I could get my hands on.” So from there, Princeton, Yale, and now to The Halls of Justice. Well we have the honor… and she's going to come from right here…and the men in suits are looking because, and he’s shaking his head. And here she is—Justice Sonia Sotomayor! (Applause.)

(Applause. Long Applause.)

Justice Sonia Sotomayor: You know the very first time I'm ashamed to say that I visited Baltimore was about 20 years ago. Does that surprise you? I had come to Washington often and I had gone through the Baltimore tunnel on 95 and for years I never thought of stopping here. And as you will find out if you read my book you'll learn that I have a little streak of spontaneity in me. As deliberate and planning as I am about my career, in my personal life I just sometimes veer off. (Laughter.) And so I got off and I walked to your harbor and loved it. And then because you know that I'm a fan of that other team to the north, I walked over and plopped myself at Camden Yards in the bleachers. Now today I don't go back to the bleachers but I thought then and I still think today: what a lovely city. What a pleasant, beautiful place. (Applause.)

What I didn't have a chance to learn on that first visit, but which I've gotten to experience in my last three years as a Justice, is how wonderful the people here are. Every single time that I've come to Baltimore for any event—I've been warmly received and tonight is no exception. Thank you all for coming and for spending a part of the evening with me. (Applause.)

There is no more perfect place for me to be at a book event than a library. If you haven't read my book yet, because I know everyone who has knows this—libraries are incredibly important to me. And the reason for it, I describe it in greater detail in my book, but it's very simple—when my dad died my home was filled with a lot of sadness. And I found books to escape the grief. They became my rocket ship, my plane to the rest of the world and a rocket ship to different universes. In books I found escape. And believe it or not today, this many years later, almost 50 now gosh I'm aging myself. My dad died when I was nine so for those kids in the audience can you figure out my age? For me it became a way for me to open my imagination. See I can't sing or dance; I can't draw to save my life. I can't act for anything, but books let me open the creativity of my mind to imagine people and places that I thought I'd never get to visit.

And you know what is delightful today? When I visit a place that I only read about, it is so wonderful to see how it differed from what I imagined. Sometimes it is a good difference and sometimes a not so good difference, but in every experience I realize that I know something about what I'm going to, because I read it. I want to read you a passage about that time in my life and I’m going to ask Carla to hold the microphone while I do that. I have a mic on, will that work as loud as this one? OK, let me try that. “As Spring turned to Summer, mommy stayed shut in her darkened room and I found myself on summer vacation longing for school to start. (There's no kid in this room who has ever longed for school to start!) I didn't feel like playing outside. I couldn't articulate exactly what I feared but I knew I should stay close by and keep an eye on things. My solace and my only distraction that Summer was reading. I discovered the pleasure of chapter books and devoured a big stack of them. The Port Chester Public Library was my haven. To thumb through the card catalog was to touch an infinite bounty. More books than I could ever possibly exhaust. My choices were more or less random. There was nobody in my family who could point me towards children's classics. No teacher who took an interest, and it never occurred to me to ask the librarian for guidance. My mother had subscribed to Highlights for Junior and me and Reader's Digest for herself. But by now I was reading whole issues of the Digest myself cover to cover. “Laughter Is The Best Medicine” was surely what I needed then. Sometimes when a story caught my imagination I could search the library for the original book…I understood that these were excerpts or abridgments, but I never had any luck and that mystified me. Now I realize that a tiny public library in a poor neighborhood would be unlikely to receive the new releases.” So what a pleasure for me to have my newly issued book at a public library in the heart of an inner-city. (Applause.)

And what an even greater joy to meet Carla and every one of her staff members who have a different view of being librarians than when I grew up or any of us my age here, who grew up. The outreach that librarians are making today is extraordinary. And in this difficult economy, libraries are that much more important. To reaching out to kids and communities and helping them continue to keep pace with the world we are in. Carla, thank you and to every member of your staff for hosting this event today. (Applause.)

Alright, I'm coming down and you see me do this some of you on television to come walk around and talk to you, and it’s because I think the people way back there only see a little speck over here and that's not fair to them. Okay? And so I'm going to do some of that. But you see the big guys around me? They get scared when too many people stand, so please stay seated as I'm doing this, because if they get scared they pull me back. And if they get really scared they take me off the stage, so let’s not have that happened. So I think the first question that I get from any audience is— why did I write this very personal book?—because you know as my preface tells everyone. I understood that I was doing something very different than what most Justices have done. And all the lawyers in this room and a lot of the judges, many of whom have taken the time to be here today, for which I am eternally grateful, are probably thinking to themselves: Sonia what have you done to people's expectations? Who wants to be this open? And I realized as I was writing the book that I was making myself very very vulnerable because people were going to judge me by what's in this book. But the bottom line is that there are many reasons for writing the book but there was really one central reason. I understood there are many people in this world who had faced, if not the identical challenges I had, very similar ones. There are countless people with parents who struggled with addictions and if not addictions, with their own health problems and there are countless kids and countless families who have struggled with health issues. Maybe not only diabetes but with many other kinds and there are many many people who have struggled with poverty and a huge number with not speaking English and coming to a life in the community and trying to make it their home. And struggling to do that.

And I also know that there are many many people who have lived the way I have with insecurities. Because if you don't have any I think you better worry a little bit. Because life's challenges are big and we’re often thrust into situations that are new that are a little scary. I was told by one of my bosses and I don't quite repeat the story in such salty language but he once said to a group of us DAs, “the day that you stop being afraid when you walk into the courtroom hang it up because you have gotten too cocky.” And when another colleague of mine expressed her fear by crying, his response was looking at her and saying “please go through this like a man.” I don’t think he would say that today but the reality is that challenges are things that many people face and insecurities are a constant part of our lives. And I thought to myself that if I could make a difference in this world in writing something it would be to share that with people so that people with those challenges would still feel hope. And there is one passage probably my absolute favorite passage in the whole book because it is at page 178 where I summarize if you're seeing me search it's because…oh the yellow stickum is still here.  If you read the book you'll find out from the book that my mother thought books were sacred. She never let us mark a book, she never lost a dog-ear a book, and if she knew that I spilled coffee on this book should be so upset. The greatest invention for my mother was the yellow stickums that I could write on so that I would stop committing sins and stop writing on books. But this is my favorite passage:

“When a young person, even a gifted one, grows up without proximate living examples of what she may aspire to become, whether lawyer, scientist, artist, or leader in any realm, her goal remains abstract. Such models as appear in books or on the news however inspiring or revered are ultimately too remote to be real let alone influential. But a role model in the flesh provides more than just an inspiration. His or her very existence is confirmation of possibilities one may have every reason to doubt. Saying yes someone like this, someone like me can do this.”

My greatest role model in life is my mother and if she were here today she would stand before you and say “I didn't know how to be a mother. Believe it or not my kids raised themselves.” What an absurd statement for her to be making. And I needed to make sure that anyone who read this book would understand how really these kids shouldn't hear me say that. But how really something stupid like that is. No child raises themself.

But I think my mother when she's being honest would say, and it is just like Justice Stevens told me: no one's born a Justice, you grow into the role you learn how to be a judge you learn how to be a parent too. When you take the steps together with your kids and you grow together parent and child…and that's the second reason I wrote this book—to make sure that every parent who read it would understand what a joy, a journey like that together can be. And to encourage every child who had a parent who they occasionally got upset at, and if it is like me with my mother that's a lot, that you would take the opportunity to stop in those moments of anger and look at each other and say we’re learning together, we forgive each other. That was the second purpose of the book because you want to know when I was being confirmed I was asked a lot a lot of questions about my family. Particularly about my father who I hardly knew and I knew even less about his family. In fact, it would surprise many of you that until I began to write this book I didn't even know where my father was born. I thought he was born in the town that I knew he had come from. Puerto Rico to the United States from, but I had never bothered to ask is that where you were born I just assumed it. There's a reason for that—my grandmother remarried she left Puerto Rico with all four children and she lost contact with my father's family. So it was a family that I knew nothing about. And this book gave me a chance to learn about that family, and what I found out is, what I found, was a father I never knew and a love affair with my mother that I'd never known about. See by the time I had conscious memory my father had already fallen into the despair of his chronic disease, alcoholism. And I never got to see my mother and father really happy. If I did I don't remember those moments I only remembered the fights. Because you see addictions become the scourge of everything. They become everybody's burden. And that's one of the things about diseases, especially addictions that haunt every family in which it is present.

But sometimes you forget that people with those afflictions can have and have had moments of joy in their own lives and that they can be, despite their diseases, good people inside. And that's the dad I found—a creative, loving, giving husband and a father who I knew loved me but I didn't really appreciate how much. And so that's a gift like no other, to be able to do something like write a book and find that out at my age, not that old...(Laughter.) But I now think I'm settling into middle-age. That means I got a long way to go guys you know? And so a lesson that I share with every audience I speak to—if you're blessed with a living parent a living grandparent a living aunt and uncle who know about your family history, spend the time actually listening to them instead of rolling your eyes at Sunday dinner. (Applause.) And I did it too—actually sit back and ask them two questions: why did that happen in your life and secondly how did you feel when it happened? You'll be amazed by how much people will tell you when you simply ask them—how did that happening to you feel like? It's amazing how much people will tell you that they sometimes haven't shared with anyone else. It's just something we’re not used to doing. We’re used to thinking about how we feel but we rarely think of asking someone else how they feel. And it's been an incredible lesson to me—take advantage. It's never too late but it can be tomorrow if you wait too long to do that. My almost 95-year-old uncle died two months after I spent a day talking to him. Don't wait. We are never sure that will have time when we are ready so make the time now please.

And what was the third gift of this book because there have been endless endless gifts. I got to tell the world a little bit about what being a Latina kid in the United States is about. (Applause.) And I got to tell people a little bit about an island that I love—Puerto Rico. And you know there's a whole lot of people who have talked to me to say “I thought Puerto Ricans were foreigners. I didn’t know they were citizens.” Well we are and we are proud proud Americans and the book describes the reasons for our pride and the many sacrifices we've made on behalf of our country. Do you know that a greater proportion of Puerto Ricans to the size of our population have died than the proportion of any members of any state of this union? And my mother served in the military, my grandfather served in the military, and many of my aunts and uncles have as well and so have many of my friends and so it's a wonderful opportunity in writing a book to share with the world the slice of America and to let people see that this great country of ours is even greater when we can take notice of how similar all of us are. (Applause.)

You know we eat different food, sometimes we play different music, and sometimes we even have unusual practices. (Laughter.) In my family, séances, but despite those superficial differences we share common value—we love family, we love country and we believe in community. And we believe in service to others and those key ingredients not only draw together people as family but they draw us together as communities. And a real important purpose of this book was to remind people of those basic values. I don't believe that anyone present in this library, no matter what your background, color, or birth language, have any difference in believing that the greatest gift of opportunity in our society is education. (Applause.)

You're not in this library, if you don't believe that—you're here because someone in your family or among your friends or a teacher or someone you love taught you that. And so in the end if everyone comes away from reading this book understanding how important that commonality is then that too has made the book worthwhile for me. So for those of you have read it and have told me tonight that you've enjoyed it, thank you. (Applause.) For those of you haven't I hope that by my talking to you today you have a little bit of insight as to what made the book tick and why it was important to me and I hope that you'll find a moment in the book that will be similar enough to a piece of your life that it'll open a door of recognition in your mind and a moment of joy in laughing at something or crying with something. Because that to me is what makes a good book. Is there a moment where you can laugh? And a moment when you can cry with it? And so I hope that you can find your moments. (Applause.) Carla, I understand I'm taking questions from the audience?

Dr. Hayden: Yes you are and I just wanted to also let you know, Justice, one of the events that we had we announced that we had wonderful new chairs so that we could have events like this and we thanked our generous donors. Tonight I'd like to thank our generous voters in the city who voted for our bond issue so we can get a brand-new sound system that we’re trying out tonight. (Applause.)

Justice Sonia Sotomayor: They did an okay job. Everything has to have a first day.

Dr. Hayden: Yes we are getting really fancy here. Our first question is from Amanda O'Neill who is 11 years old.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor: Amanda where are you?

Dr. Hayden: Amanda stand up. Amanda O'Neill.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor: Hello Amanda, how are you?

Dr. Hayden: …and Amanda wanted to know when you first became Supreme Court Justice what went through your mind when you walked into your new office?

Justice Sonia Sotomayor: Amanda, I had the best gift that you can imagine. The first time I went to my office, because I'm a little superstitious, I didn't want to walk into my office until after I was sworn in as a Justice. Because you see people who have been nominated to positions like the court, tell you that you shouldn't go to the courthouse until the day that you are sworn in. Because it's bad luck. So I didn't go into my office until after my first unofficial swearing-in. And before I got there everybody in the world was stopping me to shake my hand and hug me and kiss me. There are about 100 of my closest family members out there that day and friends. When I got there my mother and her husband, my stepfather, were there already and all I could think of was “oh my God is this real?” For the longest longest time I thought I was living in a dream and I don't know, even today when I come to things like this and I see all these people coming to wait to be with me I think to myself this is like a dream I don't want to wake up. (Applause.) Thank you for coming

Dr. Hayden: Another student wanted to know: what is the most valuable lesson you learned growing up in the Bronx that you can share with students, especially those in high school who believe that dropping out is a quick solution to immediate problems?

Justice Sonia Sotomayor: Well, in answer to that last question. First of all there...

Dr. Hayden: There she is, there is the high school student.

[Student says she went to the same high school as the Justice.]

Justice Sonia Sotomayor: You're kidding me? Hello there, how are you? [The Justice gives her a hug and a kiss, as the student asks for her book to be signed.] Let him grab it and give me a pen and a minute, okay? I’ll sign that. You know, you can talk hard statistics to kids and I will. The statistics are that today if you graduate from high school you're never going to earn much of a living. It just doesn't happen anymore. Today you can't only graduate from high school you have to graduate from college too. So if you want to live in poverty for the rest your life—drop out of school. If you want some hope for you and any kids you have, stay in school. It's as simple as that. (Applause.)

You know what I think of kids who drop out of high school? They’re chickens. That’s a hard word for me to say. They got no guts. Because to stay in school takes courage because you have to take a chance you have to accept the fear that you may not be as smart as you think. And that's why I said you lack courage and you lack guts when you drop out of school. Because you're not willing to do the work to prove that in fact you got what it takes. And I think that that's the lesson I grew up with in the Bronx. Which is the greatest challenge that we have is not to let fear stop us from trying. You know? Because it's fear that makes us doubt that we can succeed. And a lot of people instead of taking the risks that they might not, just don't even try. But I tell kids all the time you know something what's the worst thing that happens if you fail a class? You take it over, exactly. You know it ain't the end of the world. What's so bad about trying something and not being good at it? You try again and you never give up from trying. Now you may find out like I do or did I’m never going to dance on my own, I’m a horrible dancer. (Laughter.) So you know how I fix that? I went around my problem and I figured out how to follow someone who knows how to dance. And so if the guy who asked me can dance I can dance too. And every floor I go on I watch out to make sure that the guy can dance first before I say yes. (Applause.) The bottom line moral—some things you're not going to be good at no one's good at everything but until you try you can find out if you can do it or not. And sometimes you have to go around the problem. Because you can't master everything but you can figure out what you're good at and you can figure out how to make yourself better at it. And that's what's going to give you success in life: trying, learning, and figuring out how to do things better. And so have courage.

[Audience member gives her a gift.]

Justice Sonia Sotomayor: What’s the next question?

Dr. Hayden: Now this one is a little more personal, about doubt. Was there ever a time that you doubted being in law school?

Justice Sonia Sotomayor: Oh gosh yeah. You know I talk about it in my book you have got to read my book. I didn't when I graduated…who asked that question? All the way in the back there stand up.

Dr. Hayden: Law school students?

Justice Sonia Sotomayor: Come on up a little bit. My book will tell you that I graduated from law school knowing that I didn't know how to think like a lawyer yet. I went through three years of law school and I knew it hadn’t completely clicked. I mean I did fairly well at law school, I was on the law journal, I knew how to write papers so I could write them. Research I was really good at, but I knew, because I had a big failure in law school, that I wasn't there yet about what it meant to think like a lawyer completely. And I had an intuitive sense that it wasn't right for me to go yet to a law firm because I hadn't quite yet figured it out but I also knew that I was really good in a courtroom because I had done some things in law school to show me that and it wasn't until I was an assistant DA that I figured out how to be a real lawyer. Okay?

The point is that there's always doubt about whether you picked it up immediately or not sometimes you have to wait a little longer and do things more things and you can figure it out. But I stuck to it for one basic reason because I knew law was the way I wanted to help people. See I have a fundamental belief that what good lawyers do, what all lawyers good and bad should figure out is the purpose of being a lawyer, is to help people figure out how to solve the problems they're having. See the courtroom doesn't do that, the courtroom announces a winner and a loser. I think good lawyers are the ones that help people figure out how to manage their relationships better, whether they are family relationships, business relationships, community relationships, and how to find answers to their problems that work for them and for the people who they are in conflict with. And once I knew that then for me sticking it out meant it was the right choice for me. Because I had a passion about being a lawyer. Now not everyone does and if you go to law school when you sit back and you say “this is not the way it is right for me to help people” then maybe you shouldn't stick it out. But if you figure out that this is what satisfies you then you do what I said over here earlier you keep plugging away at it, it will come to you. Good luck in what you're doing. (Applause.)

Dr. Hayden: Justice, I was smiling because some of the questions are from what dramas do you watch on TV that we can’t ask you to what's a day like at the Supreme Court? But the last question we have is what did you learn in the DA’s office that you have brought with you to Supreme Court?

Justice Sonia Sotomayor: Who's the lawyer who asked that? Are you a prosecutor? Not yet or maybe? What’s the greatest lesson I learned in the DA’s office? It's a life lesson my father taught me and it's one that has always stayed with me. Good people do some bad things. You know it sounds strange to say that is a life lesson that I brought to the Supreme Court but even there I understand that we live in a society made up of people and the DA’s office reminds me every single day not to forget that as I’m deciding these grand legal theories, that there are people behind the stories. And I think that for lawyers who have done only appellate work or lawyers who have only worked in offices they sometimes forget the faces. And so to me that's been the greatest gift of all—remembering that I'm dealing with the issues of people and institutions who are affected by the decisions I make. And so that is a lesson I treasure and I would never even if I…I have been asked often “do I have any professional regrets?” I say none except that I tell law students to make sure they clerk for judges which I didn't do. And my book explains why I think that's an important choice to make if you can. But I don't think I would redo my professional life because being a DA was critically important in teaching me how to think like a lawyer, how to look at facts and apply them to law. It may be a common-law judge and one who really believes in deciding each case step at a time and not think about global policy decisions but to be a common-law judge who thinks about resolving the issue before me first. And let the next case come to present the next issue. So those are important lawyer lessons but the life lesson is to remember that every decision we make affects someone. (Applause.)

[Audience member relates a personal fact.]

Justice Sonia Sotomayor: Carla, are you telling me that was the last question?

Dr. Hayden: Would you like to…?

Justice Sonia Sotomayor: No, listen, I have to be in court tomorrow. (Laughter.)

Dr. Hayden: We know! And the last question, the very last question was about that, it was—what is a day like on the Supreme Court?

Justice Sonia Sotomayor: We research, think, and write all day long. (Laughter.) Now how boring that might sound to a lot of people. I don't do book tours all time but I do go and speak to groups all the time whether at law schools…I for one have made it a priority in my life to reach out to kids of all grades and levels. So I've spoken to kids as young as second-grade I've met with Head Start students, so I’ve gone even earlier than second-grade and I meet with kids in all kinds of settings some of you may have heard that I was on Sesame Street. (Laughter.) And so education, health issues are my priorities and I meet with groups who do all sorts of things in those two areas. I meet with judges from everywhere state and federal and international judges. And so we teach, meet with, speak with, and sit on panels with groups of all kinds. Some of my colleagues like the academic things better—I do some of those as well. So I have taught in law schools for I think it was over 12 years when I was on the courts below. Right now the only teaching I can do is of myself I'm trying to grow into being a Justice, okay?

We sit in court only about 40 days a year. And not 40, it is a little bit more than that I've lost count of the number of days. But it's only two hours at a clip when we meet. As Justices we go to conferences at least once a week to review the certiorari requests that are made of us—which cases are we going to hear? And we meet at least once a week to do that. On an argument week we meet twice a week—on Wednesday we vote on the cases we heard on Monday and on Friday to vote on the cases we've heard Tuesday and Wednesday. That's why it’s a school night for me. As you know we had some cases in court this week. And we still have some petitions to do so it’s a school night. But I think the dry definition of what we do is just that—dry. Because the most important part of what a Justice does is to think about the issues that come before us. And each vote we take we take on the basis of what we think the law precedents in the Constitution require and in each vote we understand that we’re going to affect institutions and people in good and bad ways because you see as I said earlier, in every court case there's a loser and that entity or that person is going to feel that some form of justice wasn't done for them. And so in each case we are making a statement about what we think the law is and says it is and what the Constitution means and that for someone like me who has a passion about the law it is an extraordinary job to have. If you haven't figured it out I loved being a lawyer. I've loved better being a judge. I love even better being a Justice now. (Applause.)

Dr. Hayden: Thank you, thank you. For being here on a school night, for gracing us with your presence, and for the wonderful thoughts you shared. (Applause.)

(Long applause.)

Justice Sonia Sotomayor: Thank you all for being here. (Applause.)