The moment I awoke to the news that President Barack Obama had nominated Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the US Supreme Court, I found myself weeping for joy.
Judge Sotomayor studied at Yale Law School, an Ivy League school, while I attended a much humbler law school in California, but we were in law school during the same years. We had one thing in common: as she is quoted as saying, her first year of law school was like landing in an alien world. She was as far from her Bronx housing project as I was from my San Francisco working-class neighborhood. Everything and everybody was *so* white and *so* male, and by that I mean the ethic and culture of those institutions, not only the professors and students who inhabited them.
Every day, I was made aware of my femaleness and my swarthy coloring. Only two of my professors were women; one of whom seemed as if she were trying to defuse the fact of her intelligence by flirting wildly with the male students and all of the male professors. We had one professor of color, from Sri Lanka. About twenty percent of my classmates were women; a handful were black men, with a sprinkling of Asians, including one Indian. Lonely, alienated, and scared silly, my misgivings were not helped by the vicious competition that led to students “razoring” cases from reference volumes in the library. In the era before computers and the Internet, law libraries had enormous tomes that we relied on for our research. To tear out the pages of a case deprived everyone else from access to what might be a leading judicial opinion; one that might be critical for one's research. Ethics be damned.
The professors were mostly young men, many of whom flouted the law semi-openly with their marijuana or cocaine habits. One showed up to teach stoned out of his mind on a daily basis. More disconcerting was the casual sexism and plain cruelty of the male professors, regardless of their age. Sexual jokes were tossed around regularly, in class. All the guys laughed; all the women squirmed.
Judge Sotomayor got over being scared and she excelled; she graduated at the top of her class and was on law review and Phi Beta Kappa; in law school parlance, these are high honors. I never got over being scared and intimidated. My fear made me a mediocre student. When I went job hunting, most of the opportunities I got were as second-rate as my school and my undistinguished academic career.
Law is primarily a business. Most of my prospective employers were interested in me solely because I was bilingual, not because of affirmative action or giving a chance to an underrepresented minority. The firms that hired me wanted to tap into the growing Latino market in the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area. There was a lot of money to be made from personal injury, workers’ compensation, and immigration cases.
The partners in the last firm I worked for wanted me to be able to do simultaneous translation. Until I started to work there, the office staff had done all translations. In preparation, I studied legal Spanish, and strove to translate in careful and clear Spanish. Their secretaries and clerks, untrained in law, gave rather slapdash and inaccurate translations. The partners grew impatient with my careful ways; they wanted fast, not necessarily accurate, translations. After all, their clients were just working-class people. Who cared if they really understood what was going on? On the day I quit, I walked away from what could have been a lucrative career. I just did not have the stomach for it. The greed appalled me; the advantage taken of poor and working-class people — my people — made me sick; and I knew I could never aspire to be a judge or to have the career that an top notch lawyer could.
Judge Sotomayor had more steel in her spine than I did. Success such as hers is rare, especially for one from our background. She described herself as being an ordinary person who has had great opportunities and experience. This is true, but she is also brilliant, hard-working, and brave, for it takes courage and a will of steel to reach that level of accomplishment. I don't know if I will live to see one of my students achieve a place on the US Supreme Court, but I believe that I can point them in that direction. Thank heavens and Judge Sotomayor’s mother that she is pushing open that heavy gate.