Justice Sonia Sotomayor
I went to Washington for this interview. And recorded in Justice Sotomayor’s office.
It felt more romantic than a library. Not the interview. Just the place. This is where history is made.
I wanted to know how she rose up. How does someone become true and good?
Some people don’t know how to explain their success. But Sonia did. I asked her, “What do you mean by integrity? Because people with integrity can believe in opposite things.”
“You’re right,” she said. “Different people have different measures of what’s right. Or even what’s important. Or not important. But whatever you choose has to be something that deep in your heart moves you. Because you can’t move another person unless you’re moved.”
She took me into the meta-level thinking that rules the highest court in the land.
Here’s what I learned.
3 Lessons from Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor:
1. Don’t assume. Ever. Ask Questions Instead.
Justice Sotomayor has diabetes. She has to take a shot everyday to manage her sugar levels.
One time she was at a restaurant. And before the meal, she went to the bathroom to take her medicine.
A woman walked in. And saw the needle.
“I should have realized the door was open,” she said. “It was a small bathroom.”
She put the medicine away. Hours later, she overhears the other woman say, “She’s a drug addict.”
Sonia turned red. She told me what happened next. And I almost cried.
“At first, I was ashamed,” she said. “And then I got angry. I walked back to her and said, ‘I’m not a drug addict. I’m a diabetic. And that medicine saves my life each day.’”
Then she asked this question, “Why do you make such horrible assumptions about people? If you don’t know something, ask about it. Don’t assume that people are evil just because your mind is.”
2. Listen and Be Open
Imagine you have a case. It goes all the way up to the Supreme Court.
You’ve had countless meetings with lawyers. Lost sleep. Your face hurts. Because you’ve cried more than you’ve ever cried before.
And finally, you go to court.
There’s hope in knowing the Justices will give you a chance. They’ll listen. And be open to hearing you. Genuinely.
That’s what the US Supreme Court offers people. Followed by careful consideration of the law. And a fair ruling.
“How did you learn this?” I asked. She’s had so many challenges (diabetes, divorce, hitting dead-ends in her career and more). What made her keep going?
Here’s what she said:
“I think of failure as the greatest teacher in life. When you think about the greatest growth moments in most people’s lives it has to do with a tragedy. A job not secured. A failed romance or marriage. An illness with someone who’s near and dear to you. Or the death of someone who was very important in your life. Those are the moments in which we have to dig deep within ourselves to find the strength to overcome not just in the moment but to point ourselves in a new direction and hopefully, a better one. And so I always believe when I fail that there’s a lesson to be learned, I look for it. I take from it as much as I can and I seek out how to improve myself as a result. ”
3. Don’t Over Inflate Your Own Power
There are 327.2 million people in the US.
And we turn to nine of them to decide our country’s biggest debates: women’s right, gun laws, travel bans, who’s allowed in the country. Who’s not. What do we stand for? Who are we?
That’s the biggest question of all. “Who are we?”
The Supreme Court’s rulings decide.
And I somehow ended up in Washington. At the Supreme Court. In the office of Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
Her title has so much pressure. But she doesn’t seem scared at all. She’s gracious and responsible.
“People think sometimes that judges like playing God, we really don’t,” she said. “It’s a very uncomfortable feeling.”
So she practices consistency.
“Otherwise, you’re going to frighten yourself with your sense playing God.”
She said Judges know when they’re being drive by their personal feelings of right and wrong.
“And that kind of moral choice, judges should not be making,” she said.
Being uncomfortable with ego. That’s a skill Justice Sotomayor uses everyday.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s first job was at a big, private law firm.
“I didn’t have a good experience there,” she said. Years later, she’s in the Yale library studying. She gets up to find the bathroom. And sees a panel in one of the classrooms.
“I poked my head in and saw, at the back of the room, some food. And I thought, maybe I should just step in and listen. And then I can get some food.”
The speaker was Sonia’s future boss, Bob Morgenthau. “He was a legend then and still a legend today.”
“He talked about the work in his office. And how at 23-24 years old, when we graduated from law school, we would have more responsibility as a lawyer in his office than we would have in any other area of law. And that intrigued me.”
When his talked ended, she went to the food line. Bob Morgenthau stood behind her. They talked and he said, “Come interview with me tomorrow.”
He offered her a job. She took it.
And said, “This wasn’t in my plans. It was a spontaneous decision. I think you have to plan your life and be willing to stop at a moment and take a new opportunity when it fits within what makes sense to you.”
I love that. It’s both limitless and limited. It’s freedom within boundaries.
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