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与美国联邦最高法院大法官面对面 (Part 3): U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Us

 

Scene Two: The 2,200-People Community

 

When you have 2,200 people sitting together in an auditorium, you bring a community together. Sure, out of the 2,200, the percentage of people who know their neighbours at the venue is relatively insignificant. As a liberal arts college that takes pride in our close-knit community and close interactions with faculty members, Pomona has a student population of 1,600. That evening, everyone — Pomona College students, faculty, alumni, family and staff — congregated here with the same intention: to listen to the story of an amazing woman, and to be inspired by her. That evening witnessed the happy gathering of a community at large.


The public event featured thirty minutes of a conversation between Justice Sotomayor and Prof. Hollis-Brusky, who started the dialogue by labelling the book as “pretty radical despite the lovely title and the smiling, disarming portrait of you that we see on the cover”. The Justice admitted the amount of risk she took by exposing herself to the public, which would render her vulnerable. 

 

Not only is it radical for a sitting Supreme Court Justice to write so openly and intimately about her path to the Supreme Court (“an institution shrouded in mystery and cloaked in secrecy — where nine men and women emerge in dramatic fashion from behind a velvet curtain clad in long black robes to deliver their rulings on matters such as access to health care, marriage equality, citizenship status, employment discrimination, and religious freedom” — as Prof. Hollis-Brusky eloquently phrased it to all Pomona first-years at the Orientation), the purpose of the book itself is also groundbreaking. According to Prof. Hollis-Brusky, “although told through the deeply personal – through stories, anecdotes, and recollections – I think this book is actually deeply political; and purposefully so.” 

As a Supreme Court Justice, Sotomayor cannot take a political stance. She cannot say that she endorses Affirmative Action, for instance. Yet, Prof. Hollis-Brusky sees the writing of the book itself as a political project, a strong endorsement of the kinds of programs that brought her in. To quote a powerful metaphor from My Beloved World, “The first to scale the ivy-covered wall against the odds, just one step ahead of ourselves, we would hold the ladder steady for the next kid with more talent than opportunity.” Indeed, the Justice’s autobiography is partly about access: by taking the risk of writing it, Justice Sotomayor is offering access to students of underrepresented backgrounds to achieve their own dreams. Her story is one that shows the world how one should not mistake opportunity for talent, nor let the lack of opportunity be mistaken for the lack of talent.

From my experience at Pomona College, I have been constantly impressed at how my peers think critically about everything they read and observe. Recalling vividly how much well-evidenced criticism there had been on my class’ first year book last year, I wondered how the Class of 2019 reacted to My Beloved World. My findings are that the general response is very positive. Many students brought up related, big-picture issues like structural racism during the book group discussions. However, some students were critical of the seeming disconnect between the first part of the book on Justice Sotomayor’s modest upbringing and the second (where she was launched into a corporate law world, travelling with the Fendi family in Rome and doing elitist/upper-class activities). Whilst she acknowledges being an outsider, students saw the lack of real, powerful self-reflections on the two worlds.

One of the aspects that some Pomona students were also slightly skeptical of is the fact that you can always resolve things by being a quiet pragmatist in conforming and compromising, as Justice Sotomayor proposes in her autobiography. A question that mirrored this concern was raised during the Q&A portion of the event. The Justice responded by saying that “we used to think that there is one cure for cancer and we are going to find it, but now we know there are multiple types of cancers and there are different ways to attack each one”. There is an analogy between that and political engagement: there is no single strategy that is going to be the best in solving every problem, so we should look at each problem and attack it using different ways.

Whilst I thoroughly enjoyed everything the Justice had shared with the Pomona College community about her identity as a latina of color sitting on the bench and her experience as a former first generation and low income college student, one of the themes that stood out to me the most was her candid discussion of the “Imposter Syndrome”.

Justice Sotomayor, who might come across to anyone as extremely confident, admitted that she did not always feel a sense of belonging  when she started school at Princeton, Yale Law School and during her career. For her, Princeton’s gothic architecture was a fantasy, so different from the environment she came from. Fortunately, like many of us, the Justice was able to overcome these initial difficulties with others’ support. Somewhat surprisingly, she also mentioned the worsening of the imposter syndrome when she joined the Supreme Court, citing her colleagues’s jaw-dropping level of intelligence and breadth of knowledge, ranging from the Constitution to opera.

Although our personal backgrounds can be very different from that of the Justice, we certainly can identify with her, for there are many challenges that we embrace in life: academically, professionally, and personally. We can feel intimidated by our long to-do lists, a tough assignment, or a strange surrounding that we do not perceive as genuinely welcoming. Yet, as the Justice puts it (having walked off-stage to join the audience to engage with us in a more intimate fashion), “you’re there for a reason — you’re there to do something that’s unique to you”. It doesn’t matter if we are cultured differently or have grown up in a distinct way. From what I learned from the Justice, we need to compare us to ourselves, not to others around us.

 

Epilogue

 

In our beloved world, there is a giant marble temple which, curiously, is not as dated as it looks. This building, accented with white marble and abound with symbols like Moses holding the Ten Commandments, features spiral staircases winding along the wall up several floors, desks adorned by quill pens, 60,000 volumes in an oak-paneled library, and of course, closed rooms far removed from the people and insulated from public opinion.

 

Nine people, each appointed by the President and expected to outlive the President’s legacy by two or three decades, deliberate in secret inside that Corinthian-styled temple which strives to embody “Equal Justice Under Law”. 36 steps lead up to this prominent symbol of justice itself in a nation. 

 

Yet, for individuals aspiring to sit on the Bench, the steps are innumerable. For more than a hundred years, only white, generally wealthy men were able to reach that Bench; over the past decades, women and people of colour have joined men to become Supreme Court Justices. Whilst the Court is no longer solely composed of white males, its traditions still persist. In its Dining Hall, for instance, Justices are seated by seniority on the Bench. The centre chair is always occupied by the Chief Justice, whilst the Associate Justices alternate left and right by seniority.

 

The Court today is, in many ways, homogenous. The Justices all have an Ivy League education and all served exclusively as judges in their career — unlike previous Supreme Court Justices who served as politicians for many years. Whilst one may argue that this homogeneity is good, it simultaneously limits the Supreme Court’s connections with politics outside of this marble temple. As the first woman of colour to obtain this much coveted position, Justice Sotomayor is, in many ways, a trailblazer who bridges the gap between the Court and the public by staying connected with her communities: her beloved world. 

 

Our beloved world.



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