New Book—Joan Biskupic’s “Breaking In: The Rise of Sonia Sotomayor and the Politics of Justice”

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Although I cannot say that I appreciate references to salsa-dancing when speaking of Justice Sonia Sotomayor, I will withhold comments until I read the book. Perhaps the analogy makes more sense in context. In her new book, Breaking In: The Rise of Sonia Sotomayor and the Politics of Justice, author Joan Biskupic asks “What do salsa dancing and the Supreme Court have to do with each other?” The book is now out in bookstores, so we will soon find out. For now, here are excerpts from Nina Totenberg’s (NPR ) piece, “How Justice Sotomayor Is ‘Busting’ The Supreme Court’s Steady Rhythms.”

“I wanted to make this a political history,” Biskupic said in an interview with NPR. “I was intrigued by the fact that her life, the arc of her life, was actually the same trajectory of the rise of Latinos in America.”

Latinos have grown from an estimated 2 percent of the population when Sotomayor was born to 17 percent today. Underlining those astonishing numbers is the fact that, as Biskupic puts it, Sotomayor is not someone who “happened to be Puerto Rican.” Her heritage is central to her identity. True, her odyssey in the legal profession was a cautious one; even after winning appointments to two lower federal courts, Sotomayor avoided controversy and continued to build alliances. But at the same time, she made no attempt to tamp down her unreserved personality or her Latina sense of style. And, says Biskupic, by the time Sotomayor got to the Supreme Court, her “unvarnished approach sometimes discombobulated” fellow justices, while at the same time conveying to others outside the court “an authenticity, even a vulnerability that they could identify with.”

Biskupic opens her book with a scene illustrating the point. At the end of Sotomayor’s first year on the court, the justices are having their annual party. It’s in one of the most ornate and beautiful rooms at the court, with painted portraits of past chief justices decorating the walls. It is a very private event, and by tradition, the featured entertainment is a set of skits put on by the law clerks to gently parody their bosses. On this occasion, however, after the skits, something unexpected happens.

Justice Sotomayor “springs from her chair” and tells the law clerks that while their skits were fine, “they lacked a certain something.” With that, “she gets her clerks to cue salsa music, and she goes one by one and gets the justices” — some of them extremely reluctant — “to dance with her.” Justice Anthony Kennedy “did a jitterbug move.” Others were less willing; 90-year-old Justice John Paul Stevens “felt as if he had two left feet” and quickly sat down.

The scene is telling in many ways. As Biskupic observes in her book, “It had been a difficult term, and Sotomayor’s enthusiasm was catching. [Justice Antonin] Scalia, who could shake things up in his own way,” joked as he left the room at the end of the program, “I knew she’d be trouble.”

But some justices were “not amused.” As Biskupic said in our interview, “I cannot overstate how much of a clash this represents in a place where everyone knows his or her place. There are certain steady rhythms that control the court. She was just busting those.”

The salsa scene is of a piece with Sotomayor’s sometimes confrontational style, according to the author. Sotomayor “can get in their faces” during oral arguments, she can “cut off” fellow justices, and when the court convenes in its private conferences to discuss cases, she doesn’t “soft-pedal anything,” Biskupic says.

Throughout her book, Biskupic describes how Sotomayor is different from the other justices when it comes to dealing with the public. While the others may be warm, she maintains, they are far less revealing and thus are less able to personally connect with people.

Sotomayor, for starters, is willing to talk openly about her failures as well as her many successes. Having triumphed in many new worlds, winning top honors first from Princeton and then Yale Law School, she is not shy about noting that throughout her academic and professional life, no matter what her achievements, people who did not know her questioned whether she was smart enough. It’s a suspicion that she openly suggests stems from her ethnicity, and not from any lack of achievement.

As Biskupic tells it, Sotomayor “strikes a chord with many, many people, and part of it is that she reveals her vulnerabilities, right down to how she looks. She’ll say, ‘I was a kid with a pudgy nose and my hair was all over and I just have problems looking presentable.’ She speaks to the Everywoman out there in the crowd.” [. . .]

[Many thanks to Janet Greenman for bringing this item to our attention.]

For full article (and to listen to the program), see http://www.npr.org/2014/10/07/353515075/how-justice-sotomayor-is-busting-the-supreme-courts-steady-rhythms

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