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Justice Sonia Sotomayor talks growing up in the Bronx, her love of sci-fi and more

Gary Leonard
Gary Leonard
Gary Leonard
Gary Leonard
Gary Leonard
Gary Leonard
Gary Leonard

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Here’s something I never thought I’d find myself saying about a Supreme Court justice: She’s good girlfriend material.

Having heard in December that Justice Sonia Sotomayor would be in LA in January, producer Dave Coelho and I, on the unlikeliest chance, threw out an invitation to talk about her work and her life and her book at a forum for young people here at KPCC.

One week before Sotomayor’s arrival, we heard back: She was good to go.

We and the Crawford Family Forum staff scrambled to line up high school and college students. The U.S. Marshal’s officers came through several times to check security measures, and then … she was here.

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She’s the third of four women to serve on the court, but she says she thinks of herself as “Sonia from the Bronx.” Before we went onstage, Sonia-from-the-Bronx and I talked about shoes, about Nancy Drew (Nancy and her swanky roadster and her chums introduced the Puerto Rican Bronx girl to a large, unknown world of wealth and status) and about the love of reading that seemed to her and to me to be a magical passport to anywhere in the world and beyond it, into history and science fiction – which is one of her beloved book genres.

She entered the Crawford Family Forum to a standing ovation. At one point during our hour-plus interview (all of it available online), I asked the students who among them had a friend or relative with diabetes, and about two-thirds raised their hands. Justice Sotomayor looked astonished, and then related stories of how she came to cope with her diabetes; she started giving herself her shots at the age of 7, after practicing on an orange.

Of course she couldn’t talk about topics that touched on cases that are or might come before the court, but that left plenty of subject matter, from serious questions of discrimination to my lighter inquiry asking her to tell us something we didn’t know about the court – did one of the nine, say, wear fuzzy slippers under the robe?

She laughed – a very forthright laugh, it was – and said no, but they all bring their own lunches. And when someone gets a food gift, they all share it.

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Gregarious and witty and authoritative without throwing her rank around, Sotomayor was by turns funny and savvy and serious as she answered my questions and the students’. I was tickled when she told me that my Spanish accent is very good – that’s a keeper!

The most revealing moment about her character actually came after the event. She agreed to pose for photos with groups of students so they could have a keepsake of the day they met a Supreme Court justice – then she showed the sense of determination and order that got her where she is. It was she who organized the photo shoot, telling everyone briskly where to move the chairs, and where to sit. If she gives up dispensing constitutional justice, she’s got a career as a director!

Justice Sotomayor is the fourth Supreme Court justice I’ve interviewed, three sitting, one retired; I’m determined to, “collect the whole set.”