Sonia Sotomayor's Disappointing Memoir

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


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.