U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor is embracing a higher profile this fall in her off-the-bench role promoting education, as author of two new books for young people and in assuming the mantle of a national leader in efforts to improve civics education and engagement among youth.
With retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s recent announcement that she will step away from public life, including her longtime efforts to improve civics education, Sotomayor is stepping up her role with iCivics, the organization that O’Connor founded after she retired from the court.
“We are really taking Justice O’Connor’s vision now a step further,” Sotomayor said in an interview with Education Week in her sun-drenched chambers at the high court. “We’re actively involved in trying to achieve her dream.”
Meanwhile, the justice’s new books promote the value of reading and working hard in school while recounting, in condensed form, the inspiring personal story she told in her 2013 memoir, My Beloved World.
The books are The Beloved World of Sonia Sotomayor, a young adult version of the memoir; and Turning Pages: My Life Story, a picture book aimed at readers age 4 to 8. They were published Sept. 4, and since then Sotomayor has been on a busy schedule of public appearances to promote them, from the National Book Festival in Washington; to public libraries in Chicago, Newark, N.J., and the New York City borough of Brooklyn; to other engagements from Long Island to Los Angeles.
“I loved my book tour for the parent book, and the audiences were very large for that,” Sotomayor said in the Oct. 29 interview. “But I must say, I might be enjoying this a tad more. I’ve not been keeping track of the exact number, but there’s a few thousand hugs in there from kids. That is so precious to me.”
Sotomayor is particularly proud of the children’s book, Turning Pages, which stresses reading and was illustrated by Lulu Delacre. The justice is already at work on a new illustrated book about people with life challenges such as disabilities or allergies, tentatively titled Just Ask.
“The idea was born from an incident that happened when I was an adult,” she said. “I was in a restaurant and I gave myself [an insulin] shot at my table. And as I was leaving I overheard a woman leaning over to her companion and saying, ‘She’s a drug addict,’ in kind of a stage whisper. I whipped around and said, ‘No, I’m not. I’m a diabetic. Why do you assume the worst in people? I need those shots to stay alive.’ And I stormed out.”
A Cousin’s Advice
Sotomayor, 64, just began her 10th term on the Supreme Court after being nominated by President Barack Obama to succeed Justice David H. Souter in 2009. Soon after she joined the high court, she began work on My Beloved World, which tells of her journey from a hardscrabble upbringing in a poor, Spanish-speaking household in the Bronx, to strict but Spartan Roman Catholic elementary and high schools, then to leafy Princeton University and Yale Law School, and eventually the federal bench.
Sotomayor said in the interview that she had strived to write the original book at a level that even a 5th grader could comprehend.
“Fifth graders vary in their capacities, … but I tried to simplify the book as much as I could,” Sotomayor said. “So I really wondered if I needed to do a middle school book, assuming that most children, with the assistance of a teacher or parent, could get through the [parent] book.”
But her beloved first cousin Miriam Gonzerelli, a lifelong bilingual educator, had concluded otherwise. She had used passages of the book with her students, but believed that a condensed, young adult version would be better suited to them.
“I teach English-language learners, and it was difficult for them to read the whole book,” Gonzerelli said in a separate interview from Stamford, Conn., where she has taught for years after getting her start in the New York City public schools.
Sotomayor said she listened to her cousin.
“Miriam pointed out to me from experience that for middle school children, particularly in bilingual education programs like hers, many of the adult thoughts [in the full-fledged book] were too complicated,” Sotomayor said.
“Especially because [the children] were so far away from life accomplishments like law school, lawyering, things of that nature. She thought it would be more helpful to have a middle school version that was more storytelling than contemplative.”
The middle school version condenses the original book but keeps Sotomayor’s frank telling of her story, including her father’s alcoholism and early death when she was 9; her sometimes frosty relationship with her mother, Celina, who is now 91 and lives in Florida; the death of her cousin Nelson Ramirez, Miriam’s brother, who long battled a drug addiction and who contracted AIDS through needle use; and her own battle with type 1 diabetes.
Gonzerelli successfully urged Sotomayor and her publisher to keep a scene from the original book in which the pair and their other young cousins eavesdropped on a seance the adults in the family held one night.
“The kids love that scene,” Gonzerelli. “I just wanted Sonia to keep true to all the parts of her youth.”
Sotomayor said it was important that the middle school book be frank.
“I don’t think most parents realize how in tune with the world children are, and how curious they are,” she said in the interview. “That’s why I wrote my book as honestly as I could. I tried to remember my own feelings as a child and to imagine what readers would want to know about what I felt.”
‘A Tiny Parish School’
What Sotomayor often felt was a lack of confidence, especially each time she entered a new school or job.
“My first month as a judge I was terrified, in keeping with the usual pattern of self-doubt and ferocious compensatory effort that has always attended any major transition in my life,” she wrote in a section about when she became a federal district judge in New York City in 1992. (She was elevated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, also in New York City, in 1998, where she served until joining the high court.)
Sotomayor attended Blessed Sacrament School, an austere K-8 Roman Catholic school in the Bronx run by the Sisters of Charity order. Her younger brother, Juan Luis Sotomayor Jr., also attended the school.
“This was a tiny little parish school in the middle of the South Bronx,” said the justice. “My mother sent us there for the one ingredient public school did not provide—discipline.”
Sotomayor’s brother, affectionately referred to throughout her books as Junior, is now a physician.
Sotomayor graduated from Cardinal Spellman High School, also in the Bronx, where she excelled on the debate team and began to believe that she could achieve her dream of becoming a lawyer and a judge.
Affirmative action aided her admission to Princeton and to Yale Law School, but one story from the book that always gets a rousing reaction in her public appearances involves the time a law firm partner at a recruiting dinner, in front of several of her classmates, expressed his disdain for affirmative action and asked her if she thought she would have been admitted to Yale if she were not Puerto Rican.
“It probably didn’t hurt,” she told him. “But I imagine that graduating summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Princeton had something to do with it.”
As a Supreme Court justice, Sotomayor was in the 4-3 majority in 2016 that upheld the race-conscious undergraduate admissions program in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin. Earlier, in a dissent in a 2014 decision that upheld a Michigan ballot initiative prohibiting race-based admissions preferences at that state’s universities, Sotomayor delivered a pointed answer to Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.’s well-known statement from a 2007 case that “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”
Sotomayor, in her dissent in the 2014 case, Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, wrote, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race, and to apply the Constitution with eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination.”
Going ‘All In’
Sotomayor never served on the high court bench with O’Connor, who took up the cause of civics education only after she had retired from the court in 2006.
O’Connor founded iCivics, which offers online games such as “We the Jury” and “Do I Have a Right?” Last week, the 88-year-old retired justice revealed that she has been diagnosed with dementia, probably Alzheimer’s disease, and that she would be stepping away from public life.
In her public letter, O’Connor called for efforts to improve civics education to move to a new level of commitment.
“I hope that private citizens, counties, states, and the federal government will work together to create and fund a nationwide civics education initiative,” she wrote.
Sotomayor joined the board of iCivics in 2015, after consulting Gonzerelli, who told her the games should be adapted for those with reading difficulties.
“The project that I wanted to make my own as my contribution to iCivics was the translation of the games into Spanish,” she said in the Education Week interview. “I knew we couldn’t reach all [U.S. students] if we didn’t take that step.”
Sotomayor, who just renewed her service on the group’s board for another three-year term, said iCivics has expanded its offerings to include teaching materials for high schools, lesson plans for teachers, and suggestions on how to perform civics projects.
Louise Dubé, the executive director of iCivics, said Sotomayor has not been a mere name on the list of board members.
“Justice Sotomayor is an ‘all in’ kind of woman, and she is very much present with us,” said Dubé. “It is important to have leaders of our nation speak about this issue so it cuts through the noise.”
Sotomayor agreed that the issue is one she is genuinely concerned about.
“I speak to people,” she said. “I’ve gone to schools and communities. I do a lot of outreach for iCivics. This is a very active commitment by me.”
A version of this article appeared in the November 14, 2018 edition of Education Week as For Justice Sotomayor, Life Story Fuels Passion For Education, Civics