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January 18th, 2013
08:16 PM ET

My conversation with Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor: The power of a role model

EDITOR'S NOTE: U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor sits down with CNN's Soledad O'Brien to talk about her new memoir, her views on being an affirmative action student and now a judge ruling on those cases, the differences between her and Justice Clarence Thomas, and her view that working mothers can't have it all. The interview will air in two parts on "Starting Point" on Monday, Jan 21st and Tuesday, Jan 22nd at 7aET only on CNN.

By "Starting Point" host Soledad O'Brien

Before my interview with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, she ushered me into her expansive office. It's upstairs from the rest of the justices. You wouldn't know it, but Justice Sotomayor can be loud. She likes to party, she likes noise, laughter and music. The offices downstairs…they tend to be quieter.

As I walk in, I notice a plaque on her front door and take a picture of it. “Well-behaved women rarely make history,” it says. I ask her if I could tweet the photo. She obliges, saying it's a sign that really embodies her and that most reporters miss it. 

When we sit down for the interview, the first thing we talk about is Sunday's swearing in of Vice President Biden for his second term. I asked her what she thinks of that historic opportunity, since she would be the first Hispanic judge to administer the oath. I also wondered if she felt added pressure, especially after Chief Justice John Roberts famously fumbled President Barack Obama's oath in 2009.

“When you read my book you know that I practice everything I do over and over again," Justice Sotomayor says. "So I have been saying the oath out loud for a couple of weeks now a couple of times a day but I won’t be relying on my memory either. I’ll have a card with me.”

What's clear is that Justice Sotomayor has a natural ease, which comes across in person and in her new memoir, "My Beloved World." The book recounts her life in the Bronx and her rise through her career, but it ends when she is nominated to her first judgeship on New York's Federal court and doesn't include much about her Supreme Court seat.

Her book also focuses a lot on her roots, her tight-knit Puerto Rican family and growing up in poverty in a public housing project in the Bronx, NY. She went on to college at Princeton and Yale, then worked as a lawyer until she was appointed to her first judgeship in 1991. Despite her rise, she never forgets where she came from.

An important theme she makes in the book is that she doesn't try to glamorize her great successes. Sotomayor makes a point of explaining the lessons she's learned through the challenges she's faced along the way. She recounts what it was like to attend Princeton in 1972, the 3rd year of classes for women at the school. At the time, there were virtually no Latinos at the school but she was still able to observe the plusses, challenges and ultimately the lessons learned from what was at times an isolating experience.

In her first year on the Supreme Court, Sotomayor says she was terrified. She points to her colleagues around her as the ones she relied on for mentoring. Though in reading her memoir and talking with her, it's clear that her drive to 'make it' is evident throughout her life. Even though she says she feels unprepared and not ready for her various experiences, she always manages to take a lay of the land and not only succeed but also outcompete everyone else.

She didn't shy away from talking openly about her diabetes and the importance of staying fit for her health. She felt she had an opportunity in the book to be an example for others.

Justice Sotomayor may be a new kind of Supreme Court Justice, one who knows her power as a role model and as someone who people can relate to. When talking with her in the interview, it's clear her friendliness and warmth makes it's easy to forget she holds a seat on the highest court in the country.

At the end of the interview, I introduced Justice Sotomayor to Erica Ramos, a recent college graduate from the Bronx. Sotomayor embraced Erica, who was trembling from joy, and autographed a book for her.

Sotomayor offered her some advice: You have so many great opportunities. Take them. 

Filed under: SCOTUS • U.S. Supreme Court