Sonia Sotomayor and the Real Lessons of Affirmative Action

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In a new memoir, the Supreme Court justice underlines the importance of optimism and perseverance.

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Justice Sotomayor with her mother, Celina, after her investiture. (Jason Reed/Reuters)

United States Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor's memoir, My Beloved World, will be released in just a few days, which means it will be available to the world just a few weeks before her conservative colleagues on the High Court (almost certainly) announce that they have struck down the policy of affirmative action in higher education. No surprise here. If there is one theme in the book, if there is one lesson from the wise Latina's remarkable life, it is that Sotomayor has always had a great gift for being in the right place at the right time.

Both in the short term and for posterity, Sotomayor's work will serve as a prebuttal to what Chief Justice John Roberts and company are poised to do. The presence on the Court of the newest justice herself, and her personal story of relentless achievement, are a direct answer, rich and detailed, to some of the harsher questions the conservatives posed in October when they held oral argument in Fisher v. University of Texas. What is the value of affirmative action in academia? Well, in the best-case scenario, it can produce a Sonia Sotomayor.

"There are uses to adversity," the 111th justice in American history writes, "and they don't reveal themselves until tested." She was tested. Boy, was she tested. Her parents fought. Her father was an alcoholic. He died at an early age. She was diagnosed as a child with diabetes. She had to give herself the insulin shots. The family was never financially comfortable. Her explanation for why she is where she is today in life? "I've never had to face anything that could overwhelm the native optimism and stubborn perseverance I was blessed with."

If you buy this book because you want insight into Justice Sotomayor's legal philosophy, you will be disappointed. You are better off reading her dissent in the Jicarilla Apache Nation case in 2011, or her more recent dissent in Hodge v. Kentucky -- a capital case last month in which all of her colleagues on the High Court blew off a condemned man's appeal, after the state supreme court had acknowledged that the man's trial lawyer was "constitutionally deficient" for failing to investigate or introduce any "mitigating evidence" on his client's behalf.

Sotomayor writes that the "very existence" of prosecutors and defense attorneys "depends on a shared acceptance of the law's judgment as properly superseding the passion of either side for a desired outcome." Ultimately, she writes, "the good of neither the accused nor society is served without the recognition that the integrity of the system must be set above the expedient purposes of either side." Perhaps the closest Justice Sotomayor ever comes in the book to revealing a core judicial philosophy is when she offers up this:

There is indeed something deeply wrong with a person who lacks principles, who has no moral core. There are, likewise, certainly values that brook no compromise, and I would count among them integrity, fairness and the avoidance of cruelty.

But I have never accepted the argument that principle is compromised by judging each situation on its own merits, with due appreciation of the idiosyncrasy of human motivation and fallibility. Concern for individuals, the imperative of treating them with dignity and respect for their ideas and needs, regardless of one's own views -- there too are surely principles and as worthy as any of being deemed inviolable.

But if you buy this book hoping for a personal story of perseverance, for a story about an imperfect person who rises above her circumstances through hard work, for a story about how both nature and nurture can be mastered, you will likely breeze through My Beloved World and recognize it as the confirmation hearing Sotomayor wanted but never received. Here is a woman who feared failure; here is a woman who constantly strove to do better; here is a woman who ultimately accepted the personal consequences of her professional choices. "In the end," she writes, "I sold my wedding ring to pay the lawyer who handled the divorce."

"I have always felt that the support I've drawn from those closest to me has made the decisive difference between success and failure," she writes in an early passage about her personal journey. But the line also could serve as the epitaph for affirmative action itself. After all, school administrators seek diversity in their classrooms because when a student of one race or ethnicity "supports" a student of another -- intellectually, academically, or otherwise -- it's a transfer that transcends whatever words or gestures are shared. It's a transfer of cultural beliefs, and of backgrounds, something far greater than merely the sum of its parts.

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.

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