Sonia Sotomayor: Role Model of Empathy and Purposeful Ambition

Abstract:  This book review essay discusses U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor's 2013 memoir, My Beloved World. In her memoir, Justice Sotomayor expressly acknowledges that she is a public role model and embraces this responsibility by making herself accessible to a broad audience. As a public figure, she sees an opportunity to connect with others through an account of her life journey, with details of initial challenges and lessons learned along the way, to show that one’s beginnings need not constrain one’s aspirations. Although her memoir ends at the point she begins her judicial career, twenty years ago, her experiences and reflections provide a sense of how she may approach her work on the Supreme Court, including the importance she attaches to perspective-taking — or empathy — in relating to others and viewing the larger world. Her empathic skill, as well as her understanding of public purpose as a Justice and role model, all serve to strengthen the judicial function and present a hopeful picture of further important contributions to come as she continues her work on the bench.

Excerpt: Empathy may have come more easily to Sotomayor, who, while growing up, learned to carefully listen to and observe others in order to discern what they were trying to communicate. She understood early on that what an individual is truly thinking or feeling can be picked up through more than what is said, and that emotions must also be taken into account. As an adult, she became adept at “translating the mysteries of other people’s minds” and “open[ing] [her friends’] eyes to what the worlds looked like to their husband, their boss, or their mother.” And as a Justice, her empathic ability continues to inform her approach to judicial decision making, at least to some extent. In assessing a case, she recognizes the need to view each individual’s situation according to its particular circumstances, and to give each individual due concern for her or his views, apart from her own perspective. As she puts it:

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—these too are surely principles and as worthy as any of being deemed inviolable. To remain open to understandings—perhaps even to principles—as yet not determined is the least that learning requires, its barest threshold.


Read the paper: Lee, Rebecca K., Sonia Sotomayor: Role Model of Empathy and Purposeful Ambition (December 6, 2013). Minnesota Law Review Headnotes, Vol. 98, p. 73, 2013; Thomas Jefferson School of Law Research Paper No. 2460601. Available at SSRN: