In My Beloved World, Justice Sonia Sotomayor shares her journey from public housing in the Bronx to the federal bench. Though she describes the challenges she faced on her way to becoming the first Latina appointed to the United States Supreme Court, she focuses more on the positive experiences in her life: her steadfast abuelita, her loving parents, and the mentors, allies, and friends who taught her how to succeed in a racist and sexist society that expected little from her.
During the darker times, including her struggle with juvenile diabetes when the condition dramatically shortened lives and the tragic loss of her father when she was only nine, Sotomayor sought refuge in books. For example, she writes:
Sitting in the waiting room at the clinic, I wondered, did it never occur to anyone at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine that kids who might not have long to live shouldn’t have to wait endless hours with nothing to read but stacks of old Highlights? I should have brought my Nancy Drew book, I grumbled.
Nancy Drew novels, along with the Perry Mason TV series, encouraged Sotomayor’s interest in the justice system. She carried that interest with her from the Bronx housing projects to Princeton undergrad, Yale Law School, public and private practice, and ultimately the federal bench. She spent six years on the district court, and then twelve years on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. Then, in 2009, President Obama nominated her to the Supreme Court.
Despite the impact of books on Sotomayor’s life, she is not known as one of our “literary” justices. A few years ago, Scott Dodson and Ami Dodson of UC Hastings set out to answer two questions (PDF): Who is the most literary Justice? And which authors are the most cited?
In this lighthearted study (2015), the Dodsons searched the then-current justices’ opinions for references to 91 authors they deemed to be associated with “high literature.” They excluded popular authors like J.K. Rowling while including a large number of long-dead authors like Oscar Wilde, Charles Dickens, Homer, Langston Hughes, Jane Austen, and two of the three Brontë sisters.
The study found that references to William Shakespeare and Lewis Carroll appeared the most often in Supreme Court opinions. Interestingly, the nine members of our highest court never cited Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, a book many credit as the reason they pursued a J.D (including me; see We Were All Children Once (Even Lawyers)).
The most “literary” member of the court at the time was Antonin Scalia, a now-deceased Justice known for his conservative positions limiting the rights of women and people of color. The study does not give examples of Scalia’s literary references, but I was able to find several times Scalia mentioned long-dead, white male authors, often in snarky ways.
Welcome to Groundhog Day. The scene is familiar: Petitioners, sentenced to die for the crimes they committed… come before this Court asking us to nullify their sentences as “cruel and unusual” under the Eighth Amendment. … A vocal minority of the Court, waving over their heads a ream of the most recent abolitionist studies (a superabundant genre) as though they have discovered the lost folios of Shakespeare, insist that now, at long last, the death penalty must be abolished for good.
Meanwhile, the 2015 Dodson study found that Elena Kagan and Sotomayor were the least “literary” Justices. Neither of them cited any of the 91 authors included in the study.
This result isn’t necessarily surprising considering Sotomayor’s acknowledgment in My Beloved World about how her background limited her exposure to “high” literature:
Once, I was trying to explain to my friend and later roommate Mary Cadette how out of place I sometimes felt at Princeton.
“It must be like Alice in Wonderland,” she said sympathetically.
She was kind enough to salvage the moment with a quick grace: “It’s a wonderful book, Sonia, you must read it!” In fact, she would guide me thoughtfully toward a long list of classics she had read while I was perusing Reader’s Digest [which Sotomayor’s mother read]. What did my mother know of Huckleberry Finn or Pride and Prejudice?
Nevertheless, Sotomayor is clearly well read. I wonder how the results of the Dodson study would have been different had the researchers included popular authors, authors of nonfiction, and more authors from diverse backgrounds.
I’ve written before about Justice Kagan’s reference to Dr. Seuss, a popular author of children’s books who wasn’t included in the study, and since the study’s 2015 publication date, Justice Sotomayor cited many non-white authors of nonfiction in her dissent in Utah v. Strieff (2016).
In Utah v. Strieff (PDF), a Fourth Amendment case decided a few months after Scalia’s death, the majority of the court decided that the U.S. Constitution does not prohibit police from using evidence obtained through illegal traffic stops. In her dissent, Sotomayor cited many books, including nonfiction by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Michelle Alexander, to show how the police target black people with these illegal, suspicionless stops. She wrote:
This case involves a suspicionless stop, one in which the officer initiated this chain of events without justification. […] The white defendant in this case shows that anyone’s dignity can be violated in this manner. See M. Gottschalk, Caught 119–138 (2015). But it is no secret that people of color are disproportionate victims of this type of scrutiny. See M. Alexander, The New Jim Crow 95–136 (2010). For generations, black and brown parents have given their children “the talk”— instructing them never to run down the street; always keep your hands where they can be seen; do not even think of talking back to a stranger—all out of fear of how an officer with a gun will react to them. See, e.g., W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903); J. Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (1963); T. Coates, Between the World and Me (2015).
By legitimizing the conduct that produces this double consciousness, this case tells everyone, white and black, guilty and innocent, that an officer can verify your legal status at any time. It says that your body is subject to invasion while courts excuse the violation of your rights. It implies that you are not a citizen of a democracy but the subject of a carceral state, just waiting to be cataloged.
We must not pretend that the countless people who are routinely targeted by police are “isolated.” They are the canaries in the coal mine whose deaths, civil and literal, warn us that no one can breathe in this atmosphere. See L. Guinier & G. Torres, The Miner’s Canary 274–283 (2002). They are the ones who recognize that unlawful police stops corrode all our civil liberties and threaten all our lives. Until their voices matter too, our justice system will continue to be anything but.
It’s a powerful dissent that puts to shame other justices who cite long-dead white authors to deny us fundamental rights.
*I read My Beloved World as part of the Nonfiction Reading Challenged hosted by Katie at Doing Dewey.
**See also, Do You Recommend Any of These Nonfiction Books?