Law

Sonia Sotomayor's Disappointing Memoir

The Supreme Court justice sheds little light on her legal approach.

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My Beloved World, by Sonia Sotomayor, Knopf, 336 pages, $27.95 

In May 2009, shortly after Justice David Souter announced his retirement from the Supreme Court but before President Barack Obama got around to announcing his replacement, The New Republic published an article entitled "The Case Against Sotomayor." Written by legal affairs editor Jeffrey Rosen, the piece quoted several unnamed legal officials, including federal prosecutors and law clerks, who had worked directly with Sonia Sotomayor, Obama's presumed favorite to replace Souter. They were not impressed with her qualifications.

"They expressed questions about her temperament, her judicial craftsmanship, and most of all, her ability to provide an intellectual counterweight to the conservative justices," Rosen wrote. These legal insiders wanted "the most intellectually powerful and politically effective liberal justice possible," he continued, and they feared Sotomayor was not up to the job.

It was a damning exposé, especially coming from Rosen, a respected legal analyst writing at one of the flagship magazines of modern liberalism. And although the story failed to derail Sotomayor's nomination, it cast a shadow of doubt that continues to follow her on the bench.

Sonia Sotomayor does not mention this troubling episode in her new memoir, My Beloved World, nor does she do much to dispel any lingering liberal doubts. In fact, she ends her memoir in the year 1992, culminating with her decision to leave private practice at a powerful law firm in order to be confirmed as a judge on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. Aside from a brief mention of the surprise and humility she felt 17 years later when the president nominated her for Souter's seat on the Supreme Court, there is no discussion of Sotomayor's many years as a federal judge and no mention of any sort of legal philosophy that might be guiding her approach to the law.

It makes for a highly frustrating memoir from someone in her position. The story of Sotomayor's early life is riveting, to be sure, and readers cannot help but be impressed by her remarkable rise from a Bronx housing project, where her father drank himself to death when she was nine years old, to Princeton and then Yale Law School, where she excelled academically, to the Manhattan District Attorney's office, where she excelled again as a prosecutor, and finally to the federal bench. "I have never had to face anything," she writes, "that could overwhelm the native optimism and stubborn perseverance I was blessed with." She is justifiably proud of her accomplishments.

But most readers will also want to hear what came next in her career, and My Beloved World fails to deliver. In her 20-plus years on the federal bench, Sotomayor has confronted some of the most pressing issues of our time, from gun control to campaign finance regulation to President Barack Obama's health care overhaul. In such cases she consistently voted in support of broad government powers. Yet her memoir doesn't mention any of them.

Even the chapter detailing her years at Yale Law School, where conservative icon Robert Bork was one of her professors, offers little discussion of legal ideas. "I know some readers will be inclined to sift this chapter for clues to my own jurisprudence," she writes. "I regret to disappoint them, but that's not the purpose of this book."

Too bad she didn't set out with a different purpose. Her former colleague John Paul Stevens, for example, spent 35 years on the Supreme Court before publishing his own memoir, and the resulting book offered a number of fascinating and controversial insights into both his own role in landmark cases and the secretive inner workings of the elite tribunal.

Similarly, Clarence Thomas waited until he had served 16 years on the Supreme Court before penning his own memoir, a work which managed to recount both his hardscrabble origins in Pinpoint, Georgia and his substantive views on numerous issues, ranging from race and abortion to his controversial 1991 Supreme Court confirmation battle. Those two books offer fine models of what a Supreme Court memoir can be.

Sotomayor is entitled to write any sort of thing she wants, of course, but it's still a shame she didn't follow the excellent examples recently set by Stevens and Thomas. Readers want to know what makes the justices of the Supreme Court tick, but that information is of little value when divorced from the legal and institutional context that made the justices so important in the first place. Let's hope she writes a second volume somewhere down the line.

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  1. Sonia Sotomayo’s new memoir is long on personal history and short on jurisprudence.

    Doesn’t that sort of tell us everything we need to know?

    1. Hey, don’t dismiss it out of hand. On page 370, there’s a scene where she is sodomized by the State. And likes it.

    2. Just like the guy who appointed her.

    3. Sounds like it’s an accurate memoir.

      But WTF is this thing where people are publishing memoirs when they’re in mid-career? Or earlier?

      1. Cults of Personality don’t write themselves, yo.

  2. I’d love to know who really wrote the book. Because from listening to her speak at her confirmation hearings, there’s not a chance in a million she wrote it without a lot of help.

  3. How can you question the writings of a Wise Latina?

    1. Anagrams of Wise Latina:

      A WAISTLINE
      A SALINE WIT
      A AISLE TWIN
      A SEAL I TWIN
      A SAIL NEWT I
      A TAIL WE SIN
      A WAIL STEIN

      And the kicker: A SINAI WELT

      1. I SAIL A NEWT works better.

  4. Man, I’ll be standing in line to get that in hardcover!

    FFS, I would not take a copy of that for free, to use as kindling for a bonfire were I freezing in the snow.

  5. Bitch stole the title I was going to use for my erotic memoirs.

    1. So sue her

  6. While Sotomayor has mostly been as disappointing as I expected, there is one are where she’s pleasantly suprised me. As a former prosecutor, I was expecting here to be another vote for the continual weakening of restraints on the actions of law enforcement and prosecuters. Instead she’s probably been the most skeptical of their intentions on the current court. It’s one area where I wish Scalia, Thomas, etc. would take more after her.

    1. Perhaps this is one benefit of the emphasis on “inclusion.” Obama must have been pretty angry when she joined Scalia and Thomas to rule that the police couldn’t put a tracker on someone’s car without a warrant. But could 17 percent of the population produce any better nominees?

      1. 9 percent. He had to have a female Latina, remember? A wise female Latina, maybe not so much.

  7. Sonia Sotomayo’s new memoir is long on personal history and short on jurisprudence.

    Her judicial decisions are driven by one sole principle: Lo que usted me diga, se?or presidente.

    1. What leverage does se?or presidente have now the she’s on the bench? Maybe blackmail photos.

      1. Re: pmains,

        What leverage does se?or presidente have now the she’s on the bench?

        He’s dreamy. That’s what.

        1. I thought that was why Elena Kagan had sway over her.

  8. She is certainly getting one tonguebath after another from the usual suspects in the media for this little tome. I don’t recall so many gushing interviews with Thomas when his memoir came out.

    1. That’s because Thomas is a self-hating racist.

      1. No it’s because Thomas and his story and jurisprudence support freedom. And the media (looking for access to politicians for interviews to sell their stories, and looking for those cushy government PR/communications/speech writing jobs working for politicians) know that publicizing such stories won’t get them what they want from the politicians in power.

  9. There should be a moratirum on writing reviews of books that are destined to end up in the bins at the Goodwill.

  10. Has anybody read Scalia’s, “Reading Law”? I bought a copy and am about 50 pages into it. It is a pretty good intro to textualism.

    1. Scalia’s a pretty spectacular writer. He’s easily the best writer and probably the best speaker currently on the court.

      I forget which decision it was from, but he also gave me one of my all time favorite quotes from a dissent he wrote a few years back: “Tragic facts make bad laws.”

      That’s a pretty snappy way to describe the rush to ‘DO SOMETHING!’ that inevitably occurs after every tragedy.

  11. I just read Clarence Thomas’ memoir. While it was an interesting read, especially the parts about his childhood, I must have totally missed the “substantive views on numerous issues”. On abortion, he wrote that he was telling the truth in his confirmation hearings when he said really hadn’t discussed Roe v Wade with anyone. That wasn’t the point of his book at all.

  12. That’s because, by and large, liberals don’t have a legal approach. Liberal ideology amounts to ‘whatever I like should be the law, whatever I don’t like should be illegal.’

    It’s difficult to stretch that to 339 pages.

  13. who the fuck would buy this book to begin with?

    1. No one.

      Which is why I think book deals for politicians should be illegal – they are essentially bribes by the publishing industry who want IP laws in their favor.

      SC justices should be able to live on their salary. If they want to publish their memoirs, do it with a vanity press or release it online for free as an e-book.

  14. So-So has one purpose for her place on the bench … one cause for which her entire existence in the blackest of robes is predicated on: the moment when she can be the deciding vote or series of votes that forever change this land from the United States of America into the People’s Latin Republic of the Americas.

  15. She doesn’t have one. She relies on her wise latina gut.
    She is as dumb as a box of rocks. Affirmative Action strikes again.

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  18. Her job isn’t to provide an intellectual counterweight to Scalia, but to apply the law evenly, both as law’s meaning is derived and applied. She fails on these counts, spectacularly, for the most part. She is just another obama-loving marxist bending the const to reach her favorite liberal result, as in the obama-care case, and as she is a reliable vote to bend the Bill of Rights over backward to cater to the criminal class. Souter, after lying about what his philosophy was in order to get nominated, must be considered a back-stabbing traitor for waiting until obama got elected in order to get another radical subversive on the court. What a frickin weasel!! No more judges that don’t have a track-record of strict-constructionism/originalism/textualism should ever be appointed by a GOP pres. (It is beyond help to expect a dem pres to appoint anything but subversive radicals.)

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  28. Sonia Sotomayo’s new memoir is long on personal history and short on jurisprudence.

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