Yesterday I had the great pleasure of hearing words of wisdom from the Wise Latina herself. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, author of an acclaimed memoir, My Beloved World (affiliate link), delivered the Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture at the PEN World Voices Festival here in New York.
After Justice Sotomayor’s speech, she engaged in conversation with an eminent literary scholar, Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. And after that, she signed books and met fans (including yours truly).
What did Her Honor have to say? Here are some highlights from Justice Sotomayor’s remarks, as well as photographs….
Justice Sotomayor spoke to a packed house in the historic Great Hall of the Cooper Union, where Abraham Lincoln delivered his famous anti-slavery speech. Famous writers and scholars, including Professor Gates and Salman Rushdie, sat behind her on the stage while she spoke. The justice cut an elegant figure in a brightly colored print dress in green, white, and blue, with black stripes down each side. She accessorized this with high black pumps and dangling turquoise earrings.
The theme of the Miller Lecture is the freedom to write, so Justice Sotomayor fittingly began with a discussion of judicial independence. “You can easily find instructions on the internet for how to impeach a judge, but accomplishing it is thankfully quite difficult,” she wryly observed.
Transparency is on the rise throughout the world. But Justice Sotomayor argued that the ability to deliberate privately and confidentially is an important part of judicial independence. Shielding judicial deliberations from prying eyes serves to protect judges from outside influence, giving them the space they need to grapple with some of the most difficult issues our country faces.
Judicial independence protects judges, but it also places limits upon them. In order to preserve the public trust in the courts that allows for judicial independence, judges must be careful to avoid discussing issues that are currently pending or might come before them. In other words, judges inevitably engage in self-censorship in their public appearances. Freedom of expression, Justice Sotomayor noted, also includes the freedom not to express certain ideas or viewpoints.
The justice said that experience has taught her the wisdom of saying less, of not uttering soundbites that will be taken out of context and never go away. “I think you all know what I’m talking about,” she said with a smile — a clear allusion to her famous “Wise Latina” quip. In case anyone questioned the reference, she dispelled any doubt with the final lines of her speech: “I have enormous freedom as a Supreme Court justice. It includes the freedom to speak and act judiciously — and if I dare say it, wisely.”
After her prepared remarks, Justice Sotomayor took questions from Professor Gates. He first asked her about the title of her book and why she chose it. (Her book is wonderful — you should read it if you haven’t done so already — but I have to confess that I’m not a huge fan of the title. If I were her, I probably would have called my memoir “Wise Latina,” “Reflections of a Wise Latina,” or something similar.)
The justice explained that she wanted to defend the world of her childhood against negative depictions. She grew up in the Puerto Rican community of the South Bronx, which hasn’t always been favorably described over the years. Justice Sotomayor wanted to share with the world how this wonderfully loving community helped shape her into the person and jurist that she is today.
Professor Gates asked Justice Sotomayor how the people she wrote about in the book have received the book. The justice said that the only person she requested permission from was her cousin Miriam, whom she asked for permission to write about Miriam’s deceased brother, Nelson. In the book, the justice movingly describes how Nelson, her childhood soulmate, lost his life at an early age to drug addiction and AIDS. After reading a draft, Miriam gave Justice Sotomayor permission to write about Nelson, saying that if his story can help kids avoid a similar fate, then it’s a story worth telling.
Justice Sotomayor also explained how her 86-year-old mother, Celina Sotomayor, reacted to the book. Celina read it in three sittings. After the first, she called Justice Sotomayor in tears, deeply moved by the justice’s account of her early years. After the second, covering the chapters detailing the justice’s academic and professional successes, she told her daughter, “I didn’t know you had done so much!” And at the end, after reading about how Justice Sotomayor hid some of her struggles with diabetes from her mother, Celina said that part of her was glad that the justice did this — because Celina would have been even more worried than she already was had she known the whole truth.
Responding to a question about “causes not yet won,” Justice Sotomayor emphasized the importance of education — which she views her memoir as advancing. She has been able to realize so many of her dreams — swearing in a vice-president, throwing out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium, being #1 on the New York Times bestseller list — and she wrote her book in part to give young people hope that their dreams might come true as well.
Professor Gates asked Justice Sotomayor to compare legal writing and memoir writing. She explained that the art of persuasion is required for both — to write a convincing opinion, or to tell a good story. Readers need to be be persuaded that there’s a purpose or point to what you’re telling them. She concluded by confessing that writing her memoir wasn’t easy: “Writing a book is much harder than I realized! Had I known, I might not have done it.”
I know I speak for thousands when I say we’re glad you did, Justice Sotomayor. We might not all agree with your judicial opinions, but your memoir — thoughtful, moving, and beautifully written — is a true literary achievement. It might be your first book, but we hope it’s not your last.
(Flip to the next page for photographs from yesterday’s event with Justice Sotomayor.)