How Justice Sotomayor Is 'Busting' The Supreme Court's Steady Rhythms Longtime Supreme Court reporter Joan Biskupic's new book on Justice Sonia Sotomayor reflects on the nation's first Latina justice.
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How Justice Sotomayor Is 'Busting' The Supreme Court's Steady Rhythms

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How Justice Sotomayor Is 'Busting' The Supreme Court's Steady Rhythms

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How Justice Sotomayor Is 'Busting' The Supreme Court's Steady Rhythms

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And I'm Rachel Martin, with a question about what salsa dancing and the Supreme Court might have in common. The answer? Sonia Sotomayor. There's a new book out today about Justice Sotomayor. The New York native has written her own best-selling autobiography, but it ends, for all practical purposes, when she becomes a judge in 1992. This new book "Breaking In: The Rise Of Sonia Sotomayor And The Politics Of Justice" is written by Joan Biskupic, and it starts up where Sotomayor leaves off. The Reuters law editor has written two other judicial biographies, but as she told NPR's legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg, the Sotomayor book is different.

JOAN BISKUPIC: I wanted to make this a political history. I was intrigued by the fact that her life, the arc of her life was actually the same trajectory of the rise of Latinos in America.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: The fastest-growing minority in America, Latinos have grown from an estimated 2 percent of the population when Sotomayor was born, to 17 percent today. As Biskupic puts it, (reading) Sotomayor is not someone who happened to be Puerto Rican. Her heritage is central to her identity.

True, her odyssey in the legal profession was a cautious one. Even after winning appointments to two lower courts, she avoided controversy and continued to build alliances. But she made no attempt to tamp down her unreserved personality or her Latina sense of style. Biskupic says that by the time Sotomayor got to the Supreme Court, her unvarnished approach sometimes discombobulated fellow justices, while at the same time conveying to others outside the court an authenticity, even a vulnerability, that they could identify with. Biskupic opens her book with a scene illustrating the point. At the end of Sotomayor's first year on the court, the justices are having their annual party. It's in one of the most ornate and beautiful rooms of the court, with painted portraits of prior chief justices decorating the walls. It's a very private event, and by tradition, the featured entertainment is a set of skits put on by the law clerks to gently parody their bosses. On this occasion, however, after the skits, something unexpected happened.

BISKUPIC: Justice Sotomayor springs from her chair and says, well, those were all fine and good, but I think they lacked a certain something. She gets her law clerks to cue salsa music, and she goes one by one and gets the justices to dance with her. Now, I cannot overstate how much of a clash this represents in a place where everyone knows his or her place. There are certain steady rhythms that control the court, and she was just busting those.

TOTENBERG: But you also say in the book that the salsa scene is of a piece with her confrontational style.

BISKUPIC: That's right. She can get in their faces. During oral arguments, she can cut off justices. When she's in conference with the justices, she's not going to soft-pedal anything.

TOTENBERG: It's a style quite different from that of President Obama's other appointee to the court, Elana Kagan.

BISKUPIC: The way I categorize Elana Kagan is as someone who always has her antenna up for where her colleagues are. She's always working a game among the nine justices, trying to figure out where common ground might be. Sonia Sotomayor is different. She will break off, even from her liberal colleagues, to write a separate concurrence or write a dissent in a way that Elana Kagan, to this day, still has not done.

TOTENBERG: But as Biskupic tell us with a significant scoop, Sotomayor's passion can be effective, too, as it was two years ago when the issue was affirmative action in higher education, the very system that initially boosted her from the tenements of the Bronx to the elite Ivy League and eventually the top of the legal profession. The case, which involved the University of Texas affirmative action program, was argued in early October, 2012, but was not decided until late June. And Biskupic reports that it was Sotomayor's scorching dissent that turned the tide.

BISKUPIC: She was furious about where the majority of her colleagues were and what they were going to do in terms of rolling back affirmative action. So she writes this dissent. It circulated privately, and it gets the attention of her colleagues who, you know, first of all, some of them are skittish about going as far as they might go. And over the course of these many months, many negotiations, the conservatives back away and what we end up seeing in late June is a ruling that lets the University of Texas policy stand and essentially waits for another day.

TOTENBERG: In the end, what the public saw was a 7 to 1 decision written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, with a silent Justice Sotomayor signing on to the majority opinion - evidence that Sotomayor can be a team player and a discrete one. For her confirmation hearing, she removed her trademark fire-engine red nail polish and hoop earrings, and when Sotomayor learned that Biskupic knew about the internal machinations over the Texas affirmative action case, she was so upset that Biskupic in footnote states specifically that Sotomayor was not the source of her information. Throughout her book Biskupic describes how Sotomayor is different from the other justices when it comes to dealing with the public. While the others may be warm in their own way, they are far less revealing or able to connect with people. For starters, Sotomayor is not shy about noting that throughout her academic and professional life, no matter what her achievements, people who didn't know her questioned whether she was smart enough - a suspicion that she openly suggests stems from her ethnicity and not from any lack of achievement.

BISKUPIC: She strikes a chord with many, many people. And part of it is that she reveals her vulnerabilities right down to, you know, how she looks. She'll say, I was a kid with a pudgy nose and my hair was is all over, and I have problems looking presentable. You know, she speaks to the every woman out there in the crowd.

TOTENBERG: And so people line up for 6 hours in advance at some of her book signings, and at public events, she can bring the crowd to tears by the way she relates, for example, to a faltering questioner, in one case, calling a young man up to the stage to give him a hug. Biskupic sees Sotomayor as an authentic and genuine personality, but also shrewd and calculating.

BISKUPIC: She's someone who got ahead by standing out. She got ahead by not waiting her turn.

TOTENBERG: At the end of the book, Biskupic returns to the salsa scene that she opened with.

BISKUPIC: Will the same characteristics that got her to the Supreme Court potentially interfere with her effectiveness with her fellow justices? When she asked them to dance, they got up; when she asks them to follow her on the law, I'm not so sure.

TOTENBERG: Joan Biskupic's book is titled "Breaking In: The Rise Of Sonia Sotomayor And The Politics Of Justice." Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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