Sonia Sotomayor: At Last a Bronx Candidate!
Our emotions can surprise us sometimes. When Obama named Sonia Sotomayor as his nominee to replace Justice Souter on the United States Supreme Court, I was intellectually pleased that he had nominated an apparently outstanding candidate who would be another woman, and the first Hispanic woman, to sit on the Court. But I found that what really enthused me about Sotomayor was her Bronx roots — just like me! Her biography is well-known by now, but I reiterate here a few relevant high points: she grew up for part of her early life in the South Bronx, near Yankee stadium; she came from modest means; she is probably a Yankees fan; and she, or at least her mother (the newspaper stories I have read have been a bit unclear on this point) moved “up” at one point to live in the East Bronx in the subsidized housing project known as Co-op City.
I too grew up in the West Bronx, not too far from Yankee Stadium. My maternal grand-dad, Joe, lived only three blocks from the stadium. Unlike Sotomayor, I was lucky enough to have my parents both alive until I hit middle age (my dad is still alive and kicking at 86!). My mom was a full-time, stay-at-home mom. My dad was the sole breadwinner, first as a delivery man for a dry cleaning store, then, in later life, as a shirt salesman. My memories as a young kid are of scully (a bottle-cap game played on the hot summer tar in the middle of the street when cars weren’t approaching), stoop-ball, open fire hydrants gushing water in August, bullies, and gangs. In 6th and 7th grade I was routinely beaten up and threatened at knife point. So much so in 7th grade that I was terrified to go to school.
But I also loved school and worked hard at it, helped by my dad’s baby brother, Eugene, who had managed to go to college with the aid of the federal government as a Korean War Vet and who taught junior high school. Money was tight but not impossible. We ate three squares a day, had a loving home, and friends and neighbors passed their time chatting on the sidewalk, visiting each other’s apartments for coffee and danish, or even occasionally going out to the local Chinese restaurant. When I was 12, we moved to Co-op City, and I couldn’t believe my good fortune! Yes, Co-op City was subsidized housing, but it was then quite safe. The bullying stopped, and we lived in a brand new apartment. Otherwise, life was pretty much the same.
My teen years brought me an awareness of our modest means that I lacked when younger. I also had an intense love of learning and a strong political consciousness. The Bronx came to seem as confining as a straightjacket, and I longed to get out. I did, education being my passport. That life is not one I care to return to, but it is one I am glad to come from and one I never forget. I won’t bore you with the long list of my personal flaws, but my strengths, I think, include an abiding concern for the lower-middle and lower class families struggling to do right by their kids; an abhorrence of group-based biases; a love of all things multi-cultural; a passion for learning for its own sake as well as the ways it can make our lives better; a belief in hard work and personal responsibility. And I trace all these positives to my Bronx roots. Whether deluding myself or not, I became a prosecutor hoping to make the streets safer for the sort of families I knew deserved better and became a teacher in the hope of helping others on the path (as corny as this sounds) toward their dreams. Even for my many privileged students, I like to think that my Bronx attitude will enliven their will to help others even while doing well for themselves.
I don’t want to romanticize. A person can be poor and evil or rich and kind. Many, many people are capable of understanding lives and events well beyond their personal experience. But I do believe that, at least for some of us, diverse and challenging early life experiences and roots in a culture not known for spawning Lords of the Universe can foster empathy, compassion, humility, and respect for others, and bring a valuable and different life perspective, that motivates us to give at least a little of ourselves in the service of others. I do not mean to sound holier-than-thou. I have sought a financially comfortable, physically safe life of opportunity, and I don’t think of myself as particularly self-sacrificing. Mostly I think of myself as lucky. But maybe that’s what I’m really saying; I know that bad luck can contribute to ill circumstances for the deserving and good luck sometimes helps the undeserving. Life’s options may partly differ based upon talent, hard work, wisdom in taking advantage of opportunities. But they also turn on luck. There but for the grace of G-d go I.
So what does any of this have to do with being a Supreme Court Justice? The idea that judges apply law but don’t make it has a nice sound-bite quality to it and serves as political rhetoric helpful to one partisan group or the other. It does capture an important set of truths, namely, that judges are not legislators; that they must be humble in the face of the voice of the People; and that they should not rely on their personal set of policy goals rather than the dictates of law. But any lawyer worth his or her salt knows, and any citizen should know, that law’s meaning or its application to new or divisive circumstances is frequently ambiguous. That doesn’t mean that the law can mean anything a judge wants it to mean, but it does mean that the law can bear a range of reasonable meanings. What meaning to choose within that range turns on even appellate courts’ understandings of the relevant facts, a sense of what lessons history has to teach us, and an awareness of the real-world impact of decisions.
These are not concerns of an “activist” or “liberal” judge but of any judge. To give the briefest of examples, the Fourth Amendment guarantees the right of the People to be free from “unreasonable” searches and seizures. But when is something “reasonable”? The Court says a search is reasonable if the state’s interest in getting the evidence outweighs the harm done to the individual’s privacy, property, and locomotive interests, at least where history offers no crystal clear answer (and history, fairly read, rarely does). What counts as harms and benefits and how much weight to give each is unavoidably a matter of judgment. And life experience affects that judgment, whether we openly admit it or not. Even if we deny it, judges are human beings too, and their life experiences will at least subconsciously affect their choices, certainly in close calls. That is why, after all, partisans on both sides of the aisle care so much about a candidate’s biography.
I don’t know whether Sonia Sotomayor’s Bronx roots will make her any different as a Justice than she would be were her roots in Kansas or Beverly Hills. But I hope that they do. If they do, she will bring a perspective to the Court that is sorely missing, and hearing diverse perspectives gives me more confidence in the Court’s decisions, whether I agree with them or not, than when the argument pool is much smaller. To be different is not the same thing as being right, but at least hearing from the different, if moderately expressed in good faith, can move the group toward a greater probability of getting it right. I also hope that Sotomayor displays the tolerance for difference that my dad once lacked but came to embrace. My dad is a die-hard Yankees fan. When he met my then-fiancee, now my wife, for the first time, he said only this: “Well, she seems nice, but do you really want to marry a Mets fan?” He wasn’t kidding. But we got married anyway, and he came to overlook her flaws and loves her still.