Named for the former PEN president and fierce defender of the freedom of expression, the Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture is a defining event of the PEN World Voices Festival. A conversation between Justice Sotomayor and award-winning writer, scholar, and public intellectual Henry Louis Gates, Jr. follows the lecture.
I feel so humbled to be in the Great Hall, at a podium at which one of my favorite presidents stood, President Lincoln. But among such distinguished writers – you must believe me, because I say it, right? – I'm in awe. Thank you for letting me be a part of tonight.
When I received the invitation to speak tonight, I reflected on the work that PEN does in support for freedom of expression, whether advocating for writers who were persecuted because of their work or simply raising awareness of abuses of human rights, calling us all to account because ignoring such events makes us all less worthy of our own humility. And I asked myself, what possibly say today that wouldn't be preaching to the choir?
Jakab [László Jakab Orsós], director of the PEN World Voices Festival, thoughtfully suggested a list of questions about my work on the court that might be of particular interest to the PEN membership. Many are questions I prefer not answer, and I hope my presentation today will explain why. The reason is bound up in my reflections on other questions he posed. Have I had any personal experiences with censorship or self-censorship? And then more broadly, how does the notion of freedom change depending on circumstances? Has my understanding of freedom changed since my appointment to the Supreme Court?
I must preface my remarks today by saying that my own experiences of censorship since my appointment to the Court is not a hardship. And it would be facetious for me to compare it to the repression experienced by the writers that PEN supports or that some judges have endured.
Fudges have been threatened with public censorship or removal, economically persecuted to ensure their decisions conform to the will or public opinion, and even jailed. In some jurisdictions, judges are banished to a virtual Siberia to neutralize their voices. In many countries, judges are killed.
We are fortunate that Article III of the U.S. Constitution guarantees federal judges their positions for life, absent impeachment for a high crime or misdemeanor, and that no diminution of our salaries can occur during our tenure. These guarantees largely guard against much of the overt censorship that judges experience.
Despite its rarity, the threat alone of impeachment or removal in response to a judge's decision causes untold anxiety and is often viewed as an assault on judicial independence. It is way so many lawyers and citizens in our country work assiduously to guard judicial independence against overt or even covert threats of censorship or impeachment for popular decision. It's true. You can easily find instructions on the internet for how to impeach a judge, but accomplishing it, thankfully, is a very difficult matter.
I do not claim any special bravery in my work on the Court. But knowing that freedom is both fragile and precious, and its name too easily appropriated by those who would brand it exclusively with their own politics or treat it as a commodity for export or impose it by military force.
We do well to study it closely, to learn how its facets show under different lights, how [inaudible] freedom may be indistinguishable from responsibility, [inaudible] recognizes that it shares features of privacy.
Let me give you some examples. Since its publication in January, the response to my memoir, My Beloved World, has been one of genuine surprise. Readers and critics have described it as "amazingly candid," "revealing and disarmingly personal." I can assure you that what I've written is not what is normally understood as confession or tell-all. I know I'll disappoint some. If the writing seems unusually frank to most of my readers, I believe their response is because of the expectations that surround my role as a justice.
The image of a Supreme Court justice is that of the most inscrutable of all public servants, enrobed in traditions of extraordinary professional privilege and privacy, our lifetime appointments shielding from the vicissitudes of political fortune as we confer behind doors that are closed even to our clerks and administrative staff. Oral arguments offer just a sliver of visibility into our process as we work towards a decision. And that small opening becomes the occasion for Germanic prognostication in the press as pundits examine the entrails of every utterance for some hint of how we will decide.
A curious aspect of this sport is that our decisions and the logic that lead us to them will in due course be manifest, regardless of how the air time or column-inches have been filled meanwhile. A sportscaster's breathless account does not guide a ball through the air, and neither does the public commentary that follows oral arguments sway our decision. It is inadmissible, neither evidence or arguments by the parties in the case.
The more interesting commentary, which I see so rarely in the press, would appear after we render our decision and would avoid the facile drama of rhetorical strategies or who might have been having a bad day at the podium. It would offer instead an analysis of our questions and what impact the responses had on the shape of our final opinions.
A judge's decision may indeed hinge on a question that is probed in oral arguments, but the foundations are laid before that in our study of the briefs and of legal precedents. Nor do we reach our conclusions until we have a chance to consider what our colleagues have to say in conference. Our written opinions will integrate all of that process.
The tendency instead to read newsworthy drama into every oral argument distorts the public's understanding of our work, and it's what leads even those of us who value transparency over tradition to think carefully about welcoming cameras into the courtroom.
Our opinions may indeed change after oral argument. They may change even in the process of writing. I'm sure the writers among you will recognize how wrestling a concept into a fixed form of expression can reveal unforeseen subtleties. It is now unknown for a majority opinion to be recast as a dissent.
This course of deliberation is shielded from the public view for good reason. First, to avoid any premature outcry at the perceived direction of a justice's thinking that may intend to sway that thinking, but ultimately because of the fundamental belief that a fully reasoned decision is the best way of promoting people's faith in our process. The legitimacy of the Court rests in the logical force of the opinions we write, how thoughtfully and persuasively we craft our words.
As my colleague Justice Breyer has written, "Justices do not simply announce a legal conclusion. They reason their way to that conclusion in an opinion written for all to see. The obligation to provide legally defensible reasoning in a publically accessible format prevents a judge from escaping accountability. Indeed, a good judicial opinion is transparent and informative. It shows the decision is principled and reasoned. The strength of this reasoning matters."
The secrecy and discretion that surround the Court in its deliberations are thus carefully considered. They are not only weighed in the balance against the undeniable values of transparency in government, but they also nurture that transparency.
The veil of privacy that shelters us from political influence and protects the public perception of the Court is necessary because history shows that our authority is not unassailable. The [inaudible] Supreme Court is an instrument of democratic process that relies on the people's faith in our integrity, our impartiality and our commitment to the Constitution. Maintaining the Court's decorum and its respect in the public eye are not minor questions of image and public relations, but essential to the proper functioning of the institution and our democracy.
In the same vein, when I give a speech or express myself publically outside of court opinions, I voluntarily and scrupulously censor myself. I am cautious to avoid any topic that might foreseeably come before the Court, or to express myself in any way that would telegraph a future decision. Because it's clear that such expression can and does undermine the public's confidence in the Court.
Of course I have my opinions, beliefs, preferences and emotions. I'm a thinking, feeling human being. But part of a justice's job description is to bracket those opinions and preferences and emotions so that they do not control our decisions. It's not that our silence proves the absence of prejudice, but if we don't even the self-awareness and self-control to refrain from the appearance of impropriety, then how can we be trusted to set aside our personal leanings and focus on the question of law before us.
So no, I'm not going to answer some of Jakab's questions today about the long-term implications of Amnesty v. clapper, or how PEN might hold the government accountable for torture and human rights violations, or what types of cases I might anticipate in the light of the growth of digital media.
I encourage you as citizens to think hard about such questions for yourselves. I encourage you as writers and intellectuals to bring those questions into the public discourse. I encourage you to engage with such questions actively in the democratic process.
But I myself have been assigned to a different task in that process. I've been asked, in my role as a justice, to frame my answers on a neutral ground, with preconceiving judgements before the parties have a chance to decide for themselves what cases should be brought and to build a record on those issues and present their arguments. Before I myself have had a chance to deliberate with my other eight colleagues, before each of us has thoroughly reviewed both the record before the Court and all the laws and precedent the Court relies upon.
So, beyond the self-censorship that I exercise in public statements on legal topics, another important form of self-imposed censorship is that which calls on moral sensitivity and simple courtesy to keep baser instincts in check.
You are aware, I am sure, that much hate speech is legally permissible if it does not meet the criteria of fighting words or the imminent danger of inciting lawless action. Citizens can be insensitive, rude and even deliberately cruel in their speech without actually breaking the law. We've all had experiences with that. This cruelty covers the muddy ground of what has come to be known sometimes as politically incorrect speech and [inaudible] that has come to taint the term politically correct. Perhaps our times could benefit from a little less irony and a little more sincerity.
I've written about a lesson learned from David Botwinik, a very dear friend and mentor who taught me much about legal ethics. And a quote myself: "In the practice of law, there are rules that establish a minimum standard of acceptable conduct, what the law permits. That is the floor below which one can't go. There are other rules, not formally encoded, which set the higher bar that define what's ethical behavior, consistent with respect for the dignity of others and fairness in one's dealing with them."
Compassion and humane considerations do not debase or undermine the law, but draw us to a higher personal standard than those enforced legally. In short, sensitivity in how I speak is just as important to me as what I say.
The issues that I'm raising about the situational nature of freedom of expression – including the freedom not to express – the value at times of restraint or non-transparency, are closely related to concerns around a third issue – privacy.
Today, the potential of new technologies in data mining, to overstep the bounds of privacy is a frequent topic of the public discourse, and it has come before the Court. In United States v. Jones, we considered whether extended GPS monitoring constituted an unwarranted search. I wrote in a concurring opinion, " Awareness that the Government may be watching chills associational and expressive freedoms. And the Government’s unrestrained power to assemble data that reveal private aspects of identity is susceptible to abuse. Who the Government, in its unfettered discretion, chooses to track and for long periods of time—may alter the relationship between citizen and government in a way that is inimical to democratic society. I for one doubt that people would accept without complaint the warrantless disclosure to the Government of a list of every Web site they had visited in the last week, or month, or year. But whatever the societal expectations, they can attain constitutionally protected status only if our Fourth Amendment jurisprudence ceases to treat secrecy as a prerequisite for privacy."
The two things are different. The recent events in Boston will undoubtedly add to that discussion.
But let me offer a simple distinction between secrecy and privacy. I recently spoke at a very public event where Rita Moreno and I shared a stage and held a conversation in front of an audience of 800 people. To ensure Rita and I – and the audience – that we felt that we were in an intimate conversation, the press was not invited. It seems pointless today to exclude the press from any event, when any member of the audience can tweet quotations – I'm sure some of you are now [laughter] – the moment the words are uttered, or blog their reactions later in the same evening. But the exclusion of the press can often be solely an attempt to establish certain parameters of tone and content.
So Rita and I planned to talk like girlfriends – we did – put on a certain role for the benefit of the audience present in the hall to listen in. This may involve an element of theatrical illusion, but that is neither secrecy nor disassembly. Any social interaction – or as writers know, any verbal expression – is selective in what face it presents. This is simply a matter of sensitivity to tone, content and style. The wealth of information that we share as social beings – the raised eyebrow, the small smile after a statement – and though Rita and I might laugh as if we were alone, and talk of relationships and breakups, and the allure of Marlon Brando, I am skilled enough to do it without impropriety or tipping my hand on any issue before the Court. But the presence of the press, especially televised press, can change the dynamic, raising the stakes and erasing the subtleties of tone, and I might find myself censoring more and dampening the mood, whether consciously or unconsciously.
A couple of years back, I went to my high school to meet with its students. Afterwards, a number them sent me thank you letter, individually. And one of the young people said, "I didn't want to go to hear you speak. I thought you were just one of those other politicians who would prattle on and say meaningless things to me. But the minute I saw that you entered the room without trailing cameras, I realized that you might be a different kind of politician. And after hearing speak, I'm glad I went and I'm glad to know you're not a politician." [laughter]
I have learned in speaking publicly, as in my writing, to be cautious with words that are freighted with political baggage. I have learned from hard experience to avoid a provocative turn of phrase or rhetorical flourish that might easily be lifted out of context and become a sound bite that refuses to fade away. All of you know what I'm talking about, right? [laughter]
Judges, too, must sometimes kill their darlings. Sometimes self-censorship is simply good craft and sensitivity to the purpose of one's words. If what I want the word to mean is not what others choose to understand by it, then I would do well to rephrase my argument rather than claiming like Humpty Dumpty to Alice, to be master of the word.
So given the traditional and very practical reticence of members of my court, given my concern for privacy as a sphere of an individual's individual freedom, given the value I place on restraint – whether it's motivated by compassion or by common sense – why then did I choose to write a memoir that has broken all precedent for personal revelations from a Supreme Court justice? Why run the risk that others might mine the circumstances of my life story to extract hints on my legal thinking? Some critics have commented that I do, in fact, allude in my memoir to issues that may come before the Court.
It is impossible to live in this society and not in some way be affected by a court decision. It was impossible for a minority student like me to get a college education in the 1970s. I did, without somehow feeling the impact for better or for worse, I am a product of affirmative action. Just as it is impossible for a homosexual couple today not to be affected by the DOMA and Proposition 8 cases in some way.
No matter what we do. Just so we're all clear – I'm not predicting anything, OK?
Memoirs will no doubt be written in the future that remember 2013 as a turning point for those who whose lives will be changed for better or for worse by those rulings. When you live through a particular moment of this nation's history, you cannot be automatically disqualified from hearing a case that touches your life experience. Otherwise, there would never be enough judges to decide any cases.
Which brings me back to my reason for writing an exceptionally candid memoir. Because, at this moment in the arc of our nation's history and where my own path as an individual happens to intersect with that, I am offering myself as a role model, and that could be the most valuable service I could perform, no less valuable than my jurisprudence.
My goal in writing the story of my own journey from a childhood shadowed by juvenile diabetes, parental alcoholism, in a home where English was not spoken, where the horizons of opportunity were narrowly constrained, all I can do is offer hope.
I wanted to inspire young people – minorities, those who have struggled with chronic illness, women, but anyone who has felt themselves marginalized by difficult circumstances – know that someone like them can indeed stand in the public's face and claim a voice in determining how this country imagines itself.
I wanted to express my gratitude to the mentors who have helped me at each step of my own journey by using the pages of my book to mentor others on a larger scale. I knew I could not achieve such ambitious goals in a memoir without telling a good story, without my words capturing at least some corner of my readers hearts.
And that in turn could not be accomplished without some baring of my own heart. The honestly and openness that the task required would make me vulnerable to personal criticisms, I knew, but it seemed a price worth paying.
If my story was to serve a meaningful purpose, then people would have to identify with it. Vulnerability cuts both ways. If you want to reach and connect with other people, you need to open yourself to connection.
In my book, I talk about how a functioning community and a humane social order depends on our being able to imagine ourselves in someone else's shoes. I wrote about the experiences that helped me to understand that truth from a young age. About teachers who disparage latch-key kids with working moms, because they didn't imagine that a mother's desire to give her kids a Catholic school education might be her motivation to go to work. About the policeman who accepted shopping bags of free fruit as his due from the street vendor in our neighborhood, because that officer didn't imagine what a huge cut of a poor man's profit he was taking.
I wrote about where I grew up, about the streets of the South Bronx that felt like a war zone, and that I was 15 years old when I understood how is that things break down. People can't imagine someone else's point of view. At the same time, I was writing those words with the hope that a young person reading them today might conceivably imagine herself in the shoes of a Supreme Court justice. It cuts both ways.
Many readers have labeled this understanding as empathy, or as a constructive and hopeful interpretation of what that word would mean. It's not a word that I use myself in the book. In the media storm that surrounded my confirmation hearing, that word was twisted to imply a favoring of emotion at an expense of the rational dictates of law.
I'm not going to argue terms or play Humpty Dumpty. But I do know what it means, what makes a good story is the same thing that makes human connection and community – being able to imagine yourself in someone else's shoes.
It's also one of the skills that makes you a good judge. You need to imagine yourself in the shoes of both parties that stand before you. You need to be sensitive on how your words are perceived on both sides. And you will value restraint and even self-censorship to ensure that your story achieves its intended purpose.
These, then, are my reflections on Jakab's questions. Yes, I do practice self-censorship, because it is often situation. And yes, my notion of freedom has changed since I became a justice of the Supreme Court. Being for the first time in a court of final resort, I have come to appreciate in an unanticipated way the great burden that my work imposes.
When my course decides an issue, one party wins the case, but another loses. And many others will be constrained in their behavior by our decision. The freedom that I hold as a justice of this court is extraordinary, and I cannot for a moment lose sight of the fact that that freedom is defined both as choice and as responsibility. The responsibility to speak and act – pardon the pun – judiciously [laughter]. And if I dare say it – wisely. [applause]
GATES: Wasn't that fantastic, ladies and gentlemen? Give it up for Justice Sotomayor. [applause]
SOTOMAYOR: If people read my book, they'll learn that my mother told me never to mark a book. That's how sacred it was in our household. I love since they've made the attachable tabs [laughter], so you can see that I'm still upholding her advice or her instructions – but I do mark up my books now.
GATES: You're a good daughter. I've enjoyed your talk very much, and you've raised several interesting themes: secrecy, privacy, transparency, the power of reticence versus the power of revelation, the connection between the storyteller's art the jurist's craft. I found all this quite fascinating. So let's start with this question, Your Honor. For the epigraph for your book, you used the following lines from José Gautier Benítez's lovely 19th century poem, "To Puerto Rico (I Return)":
"Forgive the exile
This sweet frenzy:
I return to my beloved world,
In love with the land where I was born."
You also include a four-page glossary of Spanish terms – I love that – that you use throughout your book, along with their English translations. Now, Benítez's poem inspired the title of your book, "My Beloved World," and is about an exile's bittersweet return to his native land. Yet you weren't born in Puerto Rico. Why did you choose this lovely poem to situate yourself in a tradition that will, in turn, define you somewhat through this lovely memoir, and I'm thinking especially of the lines you quote on page 23: "To know it, you need to see it in dreams from afar. To learn how to love it, you need to leave it."
SOTOMAYOR: I'll start by telling you a little something, and then I'll answer your broader question.
SOTOMAYOR: Among the people who reviewed my book before it was published, there was a grand debate on whether I should provide a Spanish-English glossary. Among the international writers who were part of my group reviewing the book, they called Americans lazy. Unwilling to read a book that contained foreign languages without someone doing the work for them creating the glossary. Those who were not part of the international world hated the fact that I didn't help them. Guess who won out? Because I did include the glossary, but I included it because I had a number of very dear friends who were upset because their reading was interrupted by having to figure out words.
GATES: Like strange, foreign-tongue Spanish.
SOTOMAYOR: Exactly. [laughter]
SOTOMAYOR: So that, in turn, partly responds to your answer, because it really wasn't my attempt to define myself as returning to Puerto Rico, why I took either the poem or the title. "My beloved world" is my entire world. My New York world, my Puerto Rico world which was a part of that, my world in environments that I described as alien – college at Princeton, law school at that faraway place called Yale. But it's also a line I used in my book when I talked about being comfortable in both worlds and yet never feeling completely a part of either. You can't come from a world like the one I grew up in – South Bronx – and enter the world that I got catapulted into as a college student – Princeton – [inaudible] life I've lived since then, now on the world stage, without feeling a frenzy of exile, constantly. And needing regularly to take stock and return to the essence of my world with love, to take strength from it. I wrote about the South Bronx in terms that I think most people are unaccustomed to.
GATES: Oh, absolutely.
SOTOMAYOR: The South Bronx people know is the one portrayed in that famous movie when I was growing up – "Fort Apache." Ugly, dirty, crime- and drug-ridden – that's the world most people think about. I wrote about the people. I wrote about the values of that community, about the hopes and struggles of the people who live within those communities so that others could see a world that was different than their expectations, and that could be a beloved world for someone like me, who that community birthed. And so it wasn't an identity of just being a Puerto Rican – although mind you, that was a really important part of this book, to introduce people to an island that many Americans think is foreign. It is interesting how many people have asked me, did my parents need a visa when they migrated to New York. So part of my purpose was a little bit educational, but it was more emotional, to try to show people how one's life can be endearing and loved and be loved, even with challenges.
GATES: That's beautiful. It just occurred to me when you were talking that if you and I, an African American and a Puerto Rican, had been here, say 30 years ago, I'm not sure that we could have both embraced our ethnic identity so publicly, as publicly as you have in your memoir. Do you think that's right? You know, I was thinking of black intellectuals who would have to… Their epigraph would be from Aristotle or Plato or Shakespeare because you have to show that you were, what – cosmopolitan, a citizen of the world – and that met leaving the what some people would call the ghetto of your own culture.
SOTOMAYOR: I've taken it with me, and happily. But I think you're right. I'm privileged that I can do that now. I think we've grown into a place in our society where we accept – many accept – diversity as a positive thing. The PEN lecture wouldn't have existed until after – and it didn't exist – until after September 11 because people began to realize that we live in a more open and public and international place than we ever have before. And we have to guard the world identity in a way that we had been unwilling to recognize before this. And I think you're right – the ghettos have come with us. But it's also because we want them to come with us.
SOTOMAYOR: This is a richness in accepting that that I think you and I can be more cognizant of today.
GATES: The cost was too high.
SOTOMAYOR: It was.
GATES: Our predecessors...
GATES: Our ethnic predecessors.
GATES: It was too high.
SOTOMAYOR: How many people you know from that generation– and I'm sure we have many friends – who are still tortured by that fractured identity? I'd rather not be fractured. I'd rather be whole. And I think this book is a testament of how you can get there.
GATES: I agree. The notion of the privacy seems bound up, to me, in the notion of private life, especially the life of the family. So I'm going to ask you how your mom, your mother, responded when she read the memoir, because really I commend this memoir to you. It's fascinating, riveting reading and a lot of it is about the Justice's mother and father. So how did your mom respond when she read the memoir, and among your family and friends did anyone feel that you'd violated her or his privacy?
SOTOMAYOR: The only person that I sought permission from to write about them was from my cousin Miriam, to write about her brother, Nelson. Everyone who reads the book will understand why. Nelson was my childhood soulmate, my alter-ego who died near the age of 28 from AIDS, drug-induced AIDS, and that had never been publicly spoken about in our family. And in fact, her aunt on her father's side called Miriam after reading the book, crying, that she had not known. Miriam's response to me after reading the draft of the book was, "Sonia, I see the love you've shown in dealing with Nelson and if his story can help any child to avoid his pitfalls, it's worth telling. So go ahead and tell it." My mother, who – why did I keep the book from her? [laughter] Because she's my mother!
GATES: Absolutely. [laughter] You were terrified.
SOTOMAYOR: Yeah! I mean, you know…. [laughter] No, no, no, no, no. Um, the book describes a process of growing with my mother. We've been shadowing each other's growth and development my entire life. And every step I've taken, my mother's taken with me. But unlike the idealized image that I think the public had before the book came out, it was not a growth walk for perfection. Just as Justice Stevens had told me when I came to the bench, " Sonia, no one is born a justice. You will grow into being a justice." There's a lot of truth and mothers out there that think mothers are born. Nobody's born a mother. You figure out how to be a mother. And that's what my book showed, was my mother's growth, my growth and her growth of being mother and daughter. And I just knew in writing the book that my mother would understand that. She read the book. She's now nearly 86 years old, she'll be 86 in a couple months. She's reading a little bit more slowly than she did when she was younger. And she read it in three nights. And after each clip, she would call me up. After the first six chapters – and the sixth chapter included her story – she called me crying, so much so that I couldn't get two words out of her. She called me the next day to tell me how beautiful that part of the story was. The second set of chapters, she called to tell me, " Sonia, I had no idea you had done so much." [laughter] And the third section, that disclosed my near – I don't want to call it my near-death – my close calls with my diabetes, she said to me, "Do you think I'm stupid? I always knew something was wrong. But maybe it is a good thing you kept them for me because I would've been more frightened than I was." My mom, I think, has very much enjoyed the book and has enjoyed the greater openness between us, even on the issues of health.
GATES: Did it bring you closer?
SOTOMAYOR: Absolutely. Because I think she now understands what motivates my secrecy about my health issues with her. And we've actually talked about, since the writing of the book. I've made her one promise: that if I ever have a health condition that's serious, that I will share it with her.
GATES: That's good. [To the audience:] It's important to know that her mother was a nurse so it's a….
SOTOMAYOR: The great irony of this, which is, because she's a nurse she clinically knows all the dangers and it amplifies her fears.
GATES: Of course.
SOTOMAYOR: And so it may be worse for her.
GATES: But you've been injecting yourself since you were eight.
SOTOMAYOR: Um hmm.
GATES: That is…where did you get the courage to…I mean, that orange is one thing….
SOTOMAYOR: Well, I mean…yeah, an orange is one thing. They don't teach you on oranges any more, I hear. Thank God, because hitting that orange is nothing like hitting your own arm, I can assure you. [laughter] I didn't perceive it as courage. I perceived it as necessity. And in fact, I meet a lot of juvenile diabetics now, and many of them who still haven't figured out how to give themselves their shots. My first words to them is, take control of your life. Don't let your parents control you that way. Because your freedom is the most important thing you can have. And it was the fear of losing my freedom – my freedom to go to my grandmother's house, to visit friends. That was more valuable to me than the fear of the injections.
GATES: You know, it just occurred to me that for historical reasons that we both understand, when we think of diversity we think of large categories like Hispanic, Puerto Rican or African-American, but we tend not to think of other factors that compose our identify. How important is being diabetic to your sense of yourself? For example, you will be described historically as the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice, but if you found out you were the first diabetic Supreme Court justice, would this be something important to you? [laughter]
SOTOMAYOR: Well, I don't know if that would be important to be but…and actually, would we know? How many Supreme Court justices would have hidden that?
GATES: They all would have hidden that.
SOTOMAYOR: Exactly. And I suspect that there are many people…. One of the reasons I'm so open about my diabetes was to encourage people with illness to be more open about it.
GATES: Thank God, too.
SOTOMAYOR: Yeah. No, no, no, I think it's important and I talk about some of my near situations being a product of my secrecy about my disease. But the answer to your question is very direct. The first thing I describe in my preface, the very first opening of the book outside of my initial comments are about my diagnosis of diabetes. Do you chop off your hand and not describe yourself as a person who's dealt with not having a hand, as the people from Boston will, who don't have limbs today? Chronic disease is a part of your life, inescapable part of your life, and it's inescapable in that it will have an impact on your character, for better or for worse. And I think that accepting that within myself took decades. And so if I can help any young diabetic child who reads my book to come to terms with that reality sooner, than the book is valuable.
GATES: I've had several operations on my hip. I had a misdiagnosed slipped epithesis when I was 14, so it led to all sorts of complications. And I tell my students in my intro to Afro lecture course that when they're rolling me into the operating room, the last thing on my mind is the history of black Americans. [laughter] I am not a black man at this time. [laughter] Your Honor, in the preface of your book, you talk about the importance of dreaming as a way of developing aspiration and drive. You dreamt of becoming a lawyer and judge after falling in love with those two famous Puerto Ricans, Nancy Drew and Perry Mason, and eventually had to give up on a career in the military or as a police detective – one of your early fantasies – because of diabetes. Yet this is also very much a story about overcoming obstacles at the same time. The loss of your father – he was 42 – his alcoholism, your mother's challenges as a single parent, the loss of your cousin to drugs, AIDS complications, and your divorce, but you don't make excuses in the book. When you write about your father's tragic early death, for instance, you say and I quote, "I knew he did this to himself, even as a child. I knew he was the one responsible." It's on page 44. And then on page 49, "There was no saving Poppy from himself." My question, Your Honor, is this: when we try to resolve social problems, where does individual responsibility and the shaping forces of environment start and stop, do you think?
SOTOMAYOR: I don't know the answer to that. But I do have one answer for how I've approached life, which is: I can't change you. Who you are, how you respond, what you do – those are your choices. My choices are to change me. And so as an individual, I tend to look at situations and not try to figure out what you need to do to fix them. I start with figuring out what I need to do to help the situation. And I think that that's where you draw the line, which is not trying to assess blame – who's responsible, you or me? – but for me to start, and all of us as a society to start with: If you fix this, things will be better. What a useless conversation that is. I think a more valuable one for each individual, when you're working on social change, is to figure out what you can do to better the situation and the interaction. And if everybody's giving in that way, that eventually an answer comes. It's what I think benefits a situation better.
GATES: Responsibility starts at home.
GATES: In your Princeton yearbook – whoa – you quote Norman Thomas. I quote, "I am not a champion of lost causes, but of causes not yet won."
SOTOMAYOR: What an idealist person I was. [laughter] If you read my book, you'd know I still have a little bit of that. I'm still a dreamer.
GATES: How would that graduating senior at Princeton assess the life you've lived against that quote today, do you think, without going into any details of cases pending before the Court? What causes "not yet won" are you most concerned about today, Your Honor?
SOTOMAYOR: Ah, now you really are trying, aren't you? [laughter] And I once got in trouble for saying "I take the Fifth" [laughter] and so I won't do that anymore. I'm still fighting to ensure better education for our kids. [applause] I can't fundraise – the judicial code doesn't let me do that. I can't lobby – the judicial code won't let me do that, either. So what can I do? I can – and this book is part of that effort – work at inspiring the citizenry to become more actively involved in bettering the education our kids are receiving. And empowering kids because, by the way, every public event that I do, whether it's at a law school or a university, I insist, or as I was just a day ago in Colorado working on the launch of a new judicial state court in Colorado, I insisted that they include an event that includes kids. Generally my favorite audiences are middle school, high school, college where it's possible, but middle school and high school, because if I can talk to those kids and excite them about the idea of education as giving vent to their curiosity, then I've done a very good thing. No, I didn't stick my head in a pail to amplify my voice. I stuck my head in the pail because I didn't know what a voice would sound like in a pail. It is curiosity that drove me, and it's the curiosity that has kept me learning my entire life. And so that's what I hope…the cause I'm still working at – improving our educational opportunities in this country.
GATES: We have one more question – is that is? What would that graduating senior be most surprised about? This is not the last question; this is just a follow-up question. [laughter] What would that graduating senior be most surprised about the way your lives, as it were, turned out?
SOTOMAYOR: It wasn't a dream to get on the Supreme Court – it was a fantasy. And one that I never seriously contemplated. An even greater fantasy – swearing in a vice president. Throwing a first pitch at Yankee Stadium. [laughter] Beyond all of those things, which enter those far-fetched nighttime dreams occasionally, being number one on the New York Times bestseller list. [applause] All the authors in this room – what's beyond fantasy? The improbable.
GATES: That's great.
SOTOMAYOR: For a kid who spoke Spanish before English, who spent her college years trying to learn how to write. And with help, because every good book has people who help. But to get to that place with storytelling has been the most far-fetched of all.
GATES: And I'm sure the audience agrees – you're a great storyteller. You're a fantastic storyteller. [applause] Final question, about the craft of writing.
SOTOMAYOR: He doesn't give up. That why you picked him.
GATES: Well, we are at PEN. It is Arthur Miller.
SOTOMAYOR: He doesn't give up. That why you picked him.
GATES: And Cinco de Mayo, by the way. There's a striking analogy here between the issuing of a judgment and crafting a story. Imagining yourself in the shoes of both parties, ensuring that your story achieves its intended purpose, killing your darlings as you put it, if they'll distract from that purpose. So first, Your Honor, what did you find different between crafting legal opinions and legal speeches on the one hand, and writing a memoir on the other hand? And second – and finally – what role might reading fiction play in developing the capacity to imagine oneself in another's shoes?
SOTOMAYOR: As you learned from my book, I have learning that the art of persuasion is absolutely necessary to be both a good lawyer and a good judge. It's the same art that you need to tell a good story. You have to persuade the person who's listening to you, whether in verbal speech or reading, that there's a purpose to what you're talking about. And you have to explain that purpose in a captivating way. Now, the audiences are different when I right a legal opinion. The audience is sort of other lawyers, other judges – history. And as I explained earlier in my speech, you have to write an opinion based in enough law and precedent so that you're not sort of just announcing a conclusion, that's based and interwoven and proven to be a fabric of the law. And so that's a different kind of writing and can be a little bit more tedious than a book. But from both, have to have that power of storytelling. You have to come away reading my opinion and believing I'm right because I persuaded you by the force of my logic. It's easier to do that when you read my dissents, because in my dissents it's my voice alone. And in many ways when I want to show someone the power of my legal reasoning, I tell them read my dissents. Because when you're crafting a majority opinion, you have to craft for as many people as are going to join that. So if you have a unanimous opinion, you're satisfying eight other people. And if you're a writer, you have to know how hard that is. If you're a fiction writer, though, you're telling…you're satisfying a different kind of audience, the one that you're pegging your book to. And with the power of your idea, you can structure your book in that way alone. There's something slightly different in judicial craftsmanship. But both of them, at essence, come from the same need to persuade.
GATES: Is there a novel in your future, Your Honor?
SOTOMAYOR: [laughing] Not for a long time. You know, you writers work hard. It took me writing this book to figure that out. You know, I write legal opinions and it's not easy. Writing a book was much harder than I ever imagined when I started out. If I had known how much work went into it, I might not have done it. [laughter]
GATES: Ladies and gentlemen, let's give it up for Justice Sonia Sotomayor. [applause]
Speech from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SkU-MyVpwQs.