As part of a rare trip to the Windy City in the midst of a six-week recess from the bench, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor spoke before a sold-out ballroom of 700 at the Standard Club in an event sponsored by, among other groups, the Chicago Bar Association and the Just The Beginning Foundation on Jan. 31.
In a one-hour conversation with U.S. Circuit Judge Ann Claire Williams, Sotomayor, donned casually in black from head to toe, spoke candidly about her childhood, her experience climbing the ranks of the judicial system and the "magical, magical year" she has experienced since being confirmed as the Court's 111th Justice Aug. 8, 2009.
The confirmation of Sotomayor, the Court's first Hispanic and third female justice, was aggressively challenged by Republican leadership in the Senate, most notably for a controversy-inciting "wise Latina" crack she once included in a speech. Ultimately, Sotomayor was approved by a vote of 68-31 but, more than a year later, she still said her new gig feels like "an out-of-body experience."
"I don't pinch myself because I don't want to wake up," Sotomayor laughed. "I was sitting in the front row at the State of the Union [last week] and, as I was listening to the President talk, I kept sort of shaking my head. ... You are looking at me and, on the inside, I'm still Sonia but the world's reaction to me has changed so much it becomes surreal."
Sotomayor spoke of her early days growing up in the projects the developing South Bronx, where she and her fatherwho died when she was only ninewould look out the window of their seventh-floor apartment at the trains passing by.
"He told me to imagine where those people were going, what they do and where they were coming from," Sotomayor said. "There were a lot of empty lots around, and he'd say one day there will be a supermarket there, a shopping center there and some day, they're going to put a man on the moon. He didn't live to see a man on the moon ... but he made his daughter a dreamer and I'm eternally grateful for that."
Sotomayor later described when her awareness of social-justice issues began to bud: The day she overheard a classmate's father responding to a Puerto Rican Day parade broadcast on television.
"He said, 'Those kinds of people are what's making this country so bad,'" Sotomayor said. "And I stopped and looked at him and said, 'I'm one of those people,' and I put on my jacket and left the house. It was the first overt moment where I realized that others saw me differently from how I saw myself."
Excelling in school, Sotomayor attended Princeton University on a full scholarship, earning a history degree, and later graduated with a J.D. from Yale Law School. Flash forward 30 years and she has danced the salsa with Esai Morales (of La Bamba fame) and thrown out the first pitch at a Yankees game.
And she also appeared ready to participate in some of our nation's most pressing questions in the coming years, even if she admitted to feeling pressure as the first justice with her ethnic background.
"So many people have so many hopes about what I can and will do [as a justice] that I can only disappoint," Sotomayor said. "I will render decisions people will be unhappy with, but something would be wrong if I didn't. I can't change the world ... I'm only one of nine, but what I can do is live by example and I hope that others will derive hope from me."
John Litchfield, president of the Lesbian and Gay Bar Association of Chicago, which also co-sponsored the event, said Sotomayor "offered insight into the kind of justice she'll probably be as she continues down her path."
"I think her background and experiences reflect President Obama's vision for our country," Litchfield said of the president's first Supreme Court nominee. "As a justice, she has to be impartial, but I think she will really look out for the individual, and not corporations, which I think is good for the LGBT community and shows she cares about every aspect of a person."
Earlier the same day, Sotomayor also spoke with students at the University of Chicago Law School.