Tag Archives: Sonia Sotomayor

Constitution Day at Stockton University – Joan Biskupic lecture on Chief Justice John Roberts

This year, Stockton’s celebration of Constitution Day fell on the actual anniversary of the signing of the United States Constitution in Philadelphia. This being one of my favorite holidays, I attended the plenary lecture which followed a day of activities with guest speaker Joan Biskupic.

Biskupic is a journalist (CNN), lawyer and biographer. Her talk focused on John Roberts, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Her biography entitled The Chief: The Life and Turbulent Times of Chief Justice John Roberts was released in March of this year, and already Roberts has served up more surprises, particularly blocking a citizenship question on the US census. His opinion was based not just on the question of whether the agency involved had the right to add a question, but also whether the reasons for making the change were “contrived”.

Biskupic emphasized the importance of the DC Circuit of the US Court of Appeals as a “pipeline” to the Supreme Court.

During his years of private legal practice (1992 to 2003) Roberts argued 39 cases before the Supreme Court.

Roberts is a conservative, placed on the Court in 2005 by GW Bush and, unusually, elevated directly to Chief Justice, rather than serving as Associate Justice first. Some of his opinions reflect his attitude that the Supreme Court is “not a legislature” and many matters must be left to the states.

What interests Biskupic most is judicial PROCESS – the “horse trading” and “sausage making” behind the decisions which often (as in gay marriage) have huge impacts on American life. Much of this is reflected in drafts that are circulated as justices develop their opinions. How does one justice influence another? Justice RBG warns observers “it’s not over ‘til it’s over”. The Supreme Court sometimes surprises even the most sophisticated analysts.

Biskupic says that in her next life, she wants to be an archivist. She loves pouring over documents. I consider this a very valuable contribution to society (and I never met anyone else who shared that aspiration).

I didn’t stay for the entire Q/A session, but it got off to a good start due to excellent moderation. The first question was about whom she interviewed for The Chief. Roberts is a persistent interviewer. She describes Roberts as “inscrutable”. He never permitted recording of their conversations. Other questions directed to Biskupic pertained to “sleeper decisions”, decisions of greatest consequence and “term limits” for the Supreme Court.

Biskupic published three other Supreme Court biographies and additional related books, some coauthored by Elder Witt (C-Span). I’m most interested in Breaking In: The Rise of Sonia Sotomayor and the Politics of Justice (2014). I believe I read Biskupic’s 2006 biography of Sandra Day O’Connor, though my memory is uncertain, and perhaps I read a different author.

“My Beloved World” by Sonia Sotomayor

This is a blockbuster autobiography. Sotomayor’s life is the “American dream”. She came from a very poor Spanish speaking Puerto Rican family in the Bronx. Her family travelled “back to the island” regularly , giving her access to the richness of Puerto Rican culture, but she had almost no contact with the wonders of nearby Manhattan. She became a lawyer, then a judge, and now serves on the Supreme Court, as its first Hispanic appointee. She is sometimes referred to as a “poster child” for affirmative action.

As a small child, Sonia took charge of her diabetes, which was diagnosed when she was seven. Her parents couldn’t handle the necessary daily injections of insulin, so Sonia administered them herself, understanding perfectly well that mismanagement of the disease could disable or kill her. Another turning point of her childhood, a few years later, was her mother’s decision to speak English at home. Sonia’s ability to cope with school increased exponentially. Much later in life, she was part of an organization that went to court to establish that public schools must provide bilingual education. Before then, many Spanish speaking students were classified as disabled or “slow” because teachers could not communicate with them.

In her autobiography, Sotomayor writes about learning how to learn. As early as elementary school, she approached high performing peers and asked them HOW they got good grades. Her parochial education placed a heavy emphasis on memorization, and she was floored when, as a junior in high school, she was asked to write an essay and EXPLAIN her ideas. At Princeton, a helpful friend kept passing her the “classics” she had missed, like Alice in Wonderland.

Finding mentors became a habit that benefitted Sotomayor at every stage of her education and career, though she was stubborn and admits she often listened carefully to advice and then did something else. Parts of this book should be required reading for college students. Sotomayor got in over her head time after time, and worked her way up with gritty determination.

Now a Justice of the Supreme Court and the first Hispanic to hold such a position, Sotomayor deals daily with the most important issues of our day, including immigration law. Her autobiography ends with her first judgeship, but I look forward to a second installment. She’s an energetic writer and a clear thinker, and has a wonderful life story to share.