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January 21st, 2013
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Sotomayor reflects on her life, career rise in memoir 'My Beloved World'

From growing up in the projects with an alcoholic father to graduating from Princeton University, where she was accepted thanks to a new affirmative action program at the time, Sonia Sotomayor's journey to the Supreme Court was not an easy or traditional one. She chronicles her life in her new book "My Beloved World."

Soledad sits down with Justice Sotomayor to talk about her world and her past.

Transcript available after the jump.



O'BRIEN (voice-over): Sonia Sotomayor grew up in the projects, known as Bronx Dale, 28 buildings made up of seven floors, eight apartments each. Her mother arrived in the United States from Puerto Rico as a member of the women's army corps. Knowing little English, she landed in New York, where she met Juli Sotomayor, fell in love, and got married.

Baby Sonia followed, and soon after her brother Junior. But it wasn't an easy life. Her father was loving but an alcoholic. Her mother worked six days a week as a practicing nurse. Sonia often found she had to fend for herself.

Despite setbacks like her father passing away when she was 9 years old, Sonia Sotomayor graduated valedictorian from Cardinal Spellman High School and landed at Princeton as part of the university's new affirmative action program.

(on camera): There are virtually no Latinos, no professors, no administrators, virtually no students - what did that feel like to you?

JUSTICE SONIA SOTOMAYOR, SUPREME COURT: As if I had just landed in a different universe. I was an alien. Everyone around me was so totally different in looks and backgrounds from anything I had been exposed to in the tiny microcosm of my world in the Bronx.

So to land in a place like Princeton with its collegiate architecture, its grandeur bigger than anything I had ever experienced in the places that I lived. It is so foreign that you really feel like an alien.

O'BRIEN: Was it hostile too? You write this. "The daily Princetonian routinely published letters to the editor lamenting the presence on campus of affirmative action students, each one of whom had presumably displaced a far more deserving affluent white male and could rightly be expected to crash into the gutter built of her own unrealistic aspirations. They were vultures circling."

SOTOMAYOR: If I was the only woman, I was also the only minority in many classes. You can't avoid feeling different. It is a given and does everybody intentionally try to point out their differences? No.

O'BRIEN: If you've had an experience in affirmative action, your book is all about those experiences through your life, and now as a Supreme Court judge, you will rule on a case about affirmative action. There are people who say, how can you not come in with a preset opinion on it since this is your life experience?

SOTOMAYOR: Every judge has life experiences. We don't say to a judge who's had a physical illness, you can't judge a case about disabilities. We don't say to a judge who has felt betrayed or denied something because of affirmative action, you can't hear this case.

You trust - and I think rightly - in our system of rule of law in appreciating that judges are aware of the things that might influence them and understand that they have an obligation to ensure that their decisions are not based on their personal feelings, but based on the law.

O'BRIEN: What do you think Justice Clarence Thomas, who also has written about his experiences with affirmative action, and he uses the words "humiliating" when he describes his experience? It's the polar opposite of your experience. Why do you think he has a completely different experience?

SOTOMAYOR: Was it? I mean, my book talks about the negative aspects of affirmative action, the stereotypes, the feelings - and I use the word in my book - of being expected to feel shame.

O'BRIEN: And you engage people. You don't seem ashamed. You took them on. You explained, here is why you are wrong.

SOTOMAYOR: Well, that's because that's what I came out of the experience with, and I want people to understand that there's a flip side to shame.

O'BRIEN: Do you think you ask too many questions in the court? I mean, there are people who have said - Justice Thomas is one - that there's a lot of questioning, and he thinks it's distraction.

SOTOMAYOR: Well, I know that he has a different opinion than I do. He doesn't ask any questions and some say I ask to many. I think I'm finding a happy middle ground, and I think many of my questions make people think about the issues in a different way. And I don't ask my questions to forecast an outcome. I do it to ask each side what they think are the hardest questions so I can address those questions, and as I explained earlier, convince me.

Filed under: Affirmative action • SCOTUS
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