Sunday, July 14, 2013

My Beloved World - Sonia Sotomayor

It is appropriate that My Beloved World will be my final post on Flying Houses before I leave Brooklyn Law School.  I expected to put the blog on hiatus for most of law school, but I ended up remaining somewhat prolific and increased its popularity exponentially.  "My Beloved World" refers to Puerto Rico in this book, but my beloved world will be the library at Brooklyn Law School, which I will be sad to leave.  There have been many miserable things about law school, and while aesthetically our library cannot compete with say, Pepperdine's (which features a view of the Pacific Ocean that surely puts it at the very top), I have always felt that there has been such a wealth of knowledge and information here that learning about the "legal aspect" of any topic was within my grasp.  In my case it came in the form of the biographical accounts of Supreme Court Justices--truly the best models one could hope to have in trying to achieve excellence.

Of course, it is extraordinarily unlikely that I will ever be a federal judge, but at the very beginning of this book, Sotomayor assures all that it is okay to dream:

"A student recently posed another question that gave me pause: 'Given that there are only nine Supreme Court Justices, each with life tenure, can anyone realistically aspire to such a goal?  How do we hold on to dreams that, statistically, are almost impossible?'  As I tell in these pages, the dream I first followed was to become a judge, which itself seemed far-fetched until it actually happened.  The idea of my becoming a Supreme Court Justice--which, indeed, as a goal would inevitably elude the vast majority of aspirants--never occurred to me except as the remotest of fantasies.  But experience has taught me that you cannot value dreams according to their odds of coming true.  Their real value is in stirring within us the will to aspire.  That will, wherever it finally leads, does at least move you forward.  And after a time you may recognize that the proper measure of success is not how much you've closed the distance to some far-off goal but the quality of what you've done today."  (viii)

Most striking about My Beloved World is Sotomayor's natural flair as a storyteller.  It is written almost as if it were a novel, and even has a couple of moments of "magical realism" that would not be out of place in a Marquez novel.  However, Sotomayor ends the story when she is appointed as a federal judge in the Southern District of New York in 1992.  Of course many law students and legal scholars will want to hear about Citizens United or Sebelius or other landmark decisions that were heard sufficiently long before publication, but no such treats are offered.  And it is probably for good reason: Sotomayor (like almost all federal judges) is politically savvy.  Later on in the book she rebuffs a colleague's suggestion to join the Republican party in order to have a better chance of nomination, deciding instead to register without any party affiliation.  Of course people view her as one of the "liberal Justices" and for the most part she has lived up to that stereotype.  However, I was quite surprised to read about her feelings on the criminal justice system.  While I am sure that she considers all cases fairly and without bias, I would generally presume that a "liberal Justice" would show slight bias to the Defense, and not the Prosecution.  However, Sotomayor started her career at the New York County District Attorney's Office, and I was shocked to read some of her statements regarding criminal law:

"However caustic, Judge Rothwax was no cynic, though like many a cynic he had been disillusioned, having started his career as a Legal Aid attorney and civil rights advocate before becoming a prosecutor.  That early experience led him to conclude that given all the elaborate protections of the rights of the accused, any defendant whose case eventually came to trial was almost certainly guilty.  In a controversial book, the judge proposed abolishing the Miranda warning and other rules that he believed handicapped the police and prosecutors; he also argued that a 10-2 jury verdict was close enough to unanimous for conviction.  I wasn't prepared to accept his presumption of guilt, though it is borne out statistically: policemen don't normally make arrests on sheer caprice; most defendants do turn out to be guilty.  But a probability of guilt doesn't seem reason enough to revise our standards of due process.  These are designed to protect everyone from the human frailties of those whom we entrust to enforce the state's tremendous powers.  Even if the vast majority of the law's agents exercise these powers scrupulously, it is unconscionable that anyone should pay for a crime of which he was unjustly accused.  Blackstone's famous ratio ('better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer') still speaks to a deep-seated sense of what is just." (208)

Thus, Sotomayor covers herself--at least in this regard.  She does offer up some incredible stories and is not afraid to write about sensitive topics.  I would say that this book should be required reading for anybody that would like to be a prosecutor (or a criminal defense attorney, for that matter), if only because she offers valuable tips for success.  It is extremely difficult to argue with Sotomayor: she is wise, and what the book beautifully captures is how she turned her "humble beginnings" into an asset rather than a liability.  But first, two tips for criminal trial attorneys.  The first is emotion:

"Granting myself permission to use my innate skills of the heart, accepting that emotion was perfectly valid in the art of persuasion, amounted to nothing less than a breakthrough.  Warren [Murray] would teach me much else in the way of trial skills, as had John Fried, Katie Law, and others at the DA's Office.  But that was the single most powerful lesson I would learn.  It changed my entire approach to jurors, from the voir dire to the structure of my summations, and the results spoke for themselves: I never lost a case again.  I had hung juries a couple of times, and once or twice a conviction on fewer than all counts of the indictment, but never an acquittal.
Leveraging emotional intelligence in the courtroom, as in life, depends on being attentive; the key is always to watch and listen.  You don't need to take notes with the court reporter getting down every word.  Lower your eyes to your pad, and you're bound to miss that hint of a doubt that flits across the witness's face.  Scribble instead of listening, and you won't notice the split second of hesitation in which a witness hedges a choice of words, avoiding the ones that would flow naturally in favor of the ones whose truth he or she is more certain of." (210)

The second is jury selection, debunking a myth that still seems to creep into the minds of attorneys today:

"Other lessons I would figure out for myself, often contrary to conventional wisdom.  Some prosecutors, for instance, would look for legitimate reasons to eliminate black and Hispanic juror candidates in the voir dire, the assumption being that minorities are biased in favor of defendants.  But to me that made sense only if you saw all people of color as potential perpetrators and believed, even more implausibly, that they all saw one another that way, too.  It was obvious to me that any black or Latino who held a job, or went to school, or stay home to care for an elderly parent was likely as law-abiding as anyone in my own family and, if anything, far likelier to be the victim of a crime than to commit one.  The notion that such a person would, on the basis of racial or ethnic solidarity, let anyone walk who might pose a danger to the community would have seemed laughable where I came from.  And so I packed my juries with the kinds of people I'd grown up among; the results, again, spoke for themselves."  (211-212)

While I do not believe this book will get any "bad reviews," it is not perfect (I found two typos: "Riven" instead of "Driven" near the beginning; "judge (last name)").  Some might decry sections of the book as being too "touchy-feely" and lacking in clues to Sotomayor's jurisprudence--but she anticipates this in the preface.  I would have liked to see a section on her decision that ended the Major League Baseball strike in 1994, but perhaps we will need to wait until she retires for her "judicial autobiography."  I must say that I read the book in a week, as "pleasure reading" while studying for the Bar, and was dismayed that she did not devote a single word to her experience of taking it (perhaps some memories are better forgotten).  But while I cannot say it is one of the best books I have reviewed on Flying Houses, it contains unmistakable wisdom, clarity and value.  And I found Chapter 24 to be the single best moment of the book.  Justice Sotomayor indulges in a fair bit of self-deprecation, which is welcome in a book where she has to explain how she achieved such magnificent heights.  She is also extremely funny at times.

In Chapter 24 she describes her life after her divorce from her high-school sweetheart, moving to Carroll Gardens and getting advice from friends on dating, with which she did not have much experience.  She writes about her prospects of giving birth to a child and her life as a diabetic.  She writes about adoption.  She writes about her circle of friends and how they have kept her from feeling alone.

She also writes about smoking:

"I had been a smoker since high school, burning through three and a half packs a day for much of my life.  I made my first serious attempt at quitting in my final year of law school: every time I felt the urge, I ran around the block, often with Kevin and Star chugging alongside in solidarity.  Going cold turkey during exams may sound like a needlessly brutal rigor, but in retrospect it seems less perversely self-punishing than lighting up again two years later when Kevin and I split.  There would be further attempts, using various methods, including hypnosis, but nothing worked for good until I saw little Kiley holding a pencil between two fingers, blowing imaginary smoke rings.  The guilt of endangering the health of a loved one is by far the best motivation I've discovered." (284)

She also writes about Puerto Rico's strange situation as an American territory, but not a State.  I do not know if Puerto Rico will ever become a State, but if it does, I think Sotomayor will be considered an important figure in bringing the issue back to the forefront.  However, her feelings on the matter are somewhat masked:

"Again and again, the conversation returned to the island's political status.  Did we want to remain a commonwealth, with some self-rule and a preferential trade relationship with the mainland?  Half the class believed that was no better than being a colony of the United States, living as second-class citizens.  But if we should aspire to statehood, the full rights of citizenship would come at the price of the full obligations, including a tax burden that, arguably, might have crippled our economy at the time.  Some proposed, with passionate conviction, that full independence was the only way to preserve our culture and the proper dignity of self-determination.  The economic repercussions of each position were as inscrutably complex as they were critical to the arguments.  And for those who are eager to discern my present views on the status question, I can only advise you not to give too much weight to whatever ideas vied for prominence in a young student's mind." (152)

All I can say is that this book really made me appreciate Sotomayor and the contributions she continues to make to our country.  If I ever get the chance to meet her, I will ask her for a hug.  I would imagine she gives amazing hugs.

Here is a clip that perhaps better encapsulates what is so great about her: her willingness to be a public figure and to serve as a role model par excellence: