The New Yorker: Sonia from the Bronx

Sonia Sotomayor, Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, says that she prefers to be called Sonia from the Bronx. Chances are nobody who meets her ever dreams of calling her anything so informal. When she came back to her native borough last week for an Evening of Conversation at the Bronx Defenders, a nonprofit organization on East 161st Street that provides attorneys for about half the indigent defendants in the Bronx, the executive director, Robin Steinberg, greeted her and nearly fainted to see her, live and in person. The Justice wore mostly black—black capelike coat with dark imitation-fur collar, black dress, and an unbuttoned black below-the-knee sweater with two horizontal white stripes. Her face and hands stood out as in an old, mostly dark painting.

The Bronx Defenders provides help for its clients not only in criminal cases but in all kinds of situations that involve encounters with bureaucracy. When a person gets arrested, he or she might also lose child custody, food stamps, housing, etc. The organization takes what it calls a holistic approach to fixing its clients’ problems. Two hundred and fifty people, most of them young, do this work. The Justice walked through the offices, with an entourage. A woman named Ashley Guzman shook her hand. Guzman had spent the day trying to find better housing for a homeless woman who was about to get an operation. The Justice smiled and leaned toward Guzman and asked what her job was. “I’m a legal advocate,” Guzman replied. “Legal advocate,” the Justice repeated. Then, with a penetrating gaze, she said, “What does that mean?” Guzman explained, and the Justice listened, nodding.

An audience of a hundred and fifty invitees—students, lawyers, a city councilwoman, Bronx Defenders staff and clients—waited in a nearby reception area for the Q. & A. session. “It will just be a minute. We are getting the Justice miked,” Steinberg told the assembly. Then Sotomayor appeared, to huge applause. During Steinberg’s intro, the Justice sat in an armchair on a small dais and rested her hands at the ends of the chair arms, judge style. But when she began to talk, in an unmistakable Bronx accent, she moved and gestured and made jokes and ended by walking around in the audience right up to anyone who asked her a question. She told about a “Perry Mason” episode she saw as a girl, and how impressed she was when Hamilton Burger, the D.A. who lost every week, said he was proud of doing the right thing when the guilty were convicted and the innocent set free. That made her interested in becoming a district attorney, and early in her career she did become one, after a chance encounter with the Manhattan D.A. at the time, Robert Morgenthau, on a cheese line at a reception. “You may have your career all planned out, but when a chance comes you have to be flexible enough to jump.”

She said that her confirmation hearings were a horrible experience and really got her down, but she discovered a lot about the rest of the country during her one-on-one interviews with senators. “I learned what a big issue water rights are out west,” she said. “That’s not something we think about in New York.” Sotomayor said that after she won confirmation, and Elena Kagan followed her, President Obama asked Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, “Are you happy with the two sisters I brought you?” Ginsburg replied, “I’m very, very happy. But I’ll be even happier when you give me five more.”

To a question about whether she had a mantra she used for empowerment, Sotomayor answered that she is not a religious fanatic, but sometimes in her job she says “Oh, my God, help me!” and means it. Sometimes one of her colleagues drives her crazy. If certain colleagues are acrimonious in their minority opinions, she makes allowances, because she knows they’re unhappy that they lost, and they are passionate about their beliefs. She tries to get along with all her colleagues, even the ones she usually disagrees with, because “we’re going to be there for a long time.”

Most of the people at the event had never seen a Supreme Court Justice in person before. At a dinner for thirty-five guests afterward, the Justice went around the table and talked to each person. A man who had once met a Justice’s brother asked whether she remembered the first Justice she ever met. “What an interesting question!” Sotomayor said. “Hmm. Let me think.” She crossed her arms and looked off into the distance, and everyone in the vicinity held their breath in the presence of such an amazing quality of thinking. (Answer: Chief Justice William Rehnquist, many years ago, at a law-related social gathering.)

By Ian Frazier

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