Justice Sonia Sotomayor, speaking to a full house at the University of Notre Dame Wednesday, characterized herself as the Supreme Court’s consummate outsider.* She is so much an outsider, in fact, that at one point Sotomayor described herself as being stuck outside her own body—at least for a year and a half after she was tapped for the highest court in the land.
On the day her nomination was announced, she said, “I felt like my spirit had left my body … I was looking at myself from up there … I couldn’t connect with my emotions and I knew, ultimately, that the reason for that was if I did, I wouldn’t be able to do what I needed to do: to give a speech. I thought that feeling would end that day, but it lasted for about a year and a half.” Later in the same appearance, Anne Thompson of NBC News, who was sharing the stage, asked Sotomayor bluntly if she now believed she “belonged” on the court. Her response—a flat “no”—(you can watch it here) elicited some gasps.
Sotomayor can be at her most poignant when she is trying to explain what it is that makes her feel so different from her colleagues, whom she respects and admires. Her dissenting opinion in a Michigan affirmative action case from last year was the most striking example of an effort to show us that her experiences make her fundamentally unlike many Americans who have occupied the federal bench. Her take on it this week at Notre Dame was a variation on that theme. “I'm very different from my colleagues,” she explained, adding that she’s generally more public and outspoken than her colleagues at the court.
“I am different, and yet I’m not because we’re all engaged in the same enterprise. We’re all trying to come to the right decisions together, and we’re all part of that conversation,” she said. “To that extent, I belong. But will I ever quite feel that I have their same background, their same understanding of the world that I operate on? Not really.”
One of the most remarkable revelations in Sotomayor’s 2013 autobiography, My Beloved World, was the extent to which she has spent so much of her life feeling like an outsider: someone who doesn’t have all the access and the moves but who has made it her business to observe and question and study the powerful people around her, until she could do a credible impression of an insider. This is a process, she confessed, that began when she started watching Perry Mason as a kid.
In Sotomayor’s telling, it is this natural curiosity—what she described in My Beloved World as a strategy of “listen carefully and observe until I figured things out”—combined with her almost terrifying persistence, that vaulted her from one fish-out-of-water setting (private school, Princeton, law school) into the next. And what makes Sotomayor so compelling, as the third woman and first Latina at the high court, is that she is so interested in learning about the experiences of others. It’s not her job, she told the Notre Dame students, in response to a student’s question, to impose her own experiences of race and gender onto the law. It’s her job to listen and try to understand the experiences of her colleagues, which she still finds so foreign and weird: “I don’t think I am really given permission to make judgments based on just being a Latina, just being a woman. I make judgments, taking into account not only my life experiences but those of my colleagues, who are explaining their positions to me.”
In her autobiography, Sotomayor also writes that from the get-go she has understood that there will always be “two ways of viewing the world,” and she knows she’s always going to have to work to understand the ways that seem foreign to her. In a sense she has made this the touchstone of her life as a public figure and also a part of her judicial philosophy: an acute case of impostor syndrome tempered by her confidence that she can master anything.
There has probably never been a more public justice than Sotomayor—christened the “people’s justice” for her appearances at Yankee Stadium, Univision, Sesame Street, and the ball drop on Times Square. At Notre Dame, she ambled around the aisles of the theater, talk show–style, answering student questions, working the overflow room, and sticking around for photos. But it’s not just that Sotomayor is a classic extrovert on a court composed of justices who generally range from the shy to the awkward to the subdued. As her remarks at Notre Dame show, she really does see her role as a kind of cultural anthropologist—tasked with understanding the backgrounds and experiences of those who differ from her. In a paradoxical and unironic way, there is probably nobody at the court more interested in what it must have been like to grow up a privileged white male than Sonia Sotomayor.
In her autobiography, Sotomayor wrote about how she learned at Princeton to “build bridges instead of walls,” and it’s a mistake to hear in her dogged (and often relentless) questioning at oral arguments someone who merely wants to hear her own voice. No, Sotomayor feels that she is, and probably always will be, on the outside of virtually every lofty professional setting in which she finds herself and she thinks talking and listening are the best mechanisms she can deploy to bridge those gulfs. As she told the students at Notre Dame this week, “Those small slights, those senses of not belonging, can make you not belong if you let them. … You can belong and make friends in almost any place or setting you’re in, but sometimes you have to make the effort to bridge that gap.”
And it’s this life’s work of translating her life experience to others, and—maybe less visibly—translating the life histories of others to herself, that makes Sotomayor unique among the justices. At Notre Dame she tried to summarize her judicial approach: “I have always tried to approach the law as a learning process, as one of trying to understanding how other people have approached particular questions.” Indeed, she concluded her remarks with a plea for more religious and professional diversity at the high court, as well as a request that the public understand that ultimately justices are fallible people, too.
Maybe the audience at Notre Dame felt a little sorry for the woman who confessed that even six years later, she doesn’t really feel like she “belongs” at the highest court in the land. They shouldn’t. The truth is, Sotomayor is modeling a pretty remarkable form of judicial behavior: She truly believes that—while she may never fully belong in the world she now resides in—she will make sense of it for herself and explain it to others, and if she’s lucky, she will be seen and even be persuasive in the process. It’s probably not what the nine white men envisioned by the framers of the Constitution would have expected. But it’s a pretty optimistic vision of what we could become. And after last term, with all the judicial insults and belligerence, a nice aspiration for the upcoming term.
Correction, Sept. 8, 2015: This article originally misstated the University of Notre Dame’s name. (Return.)