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Review: 'Breaking In' a deft professional bio of Sotomayor

Published Oct. 2, 2014

Joan Biskupic opens her new book about U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor with a scene from the annual party celebrating the close of the high court's term. At the June 2010 event at the end of Sotomayor's first year, she single-handedly livened up the usually stodgy affair by salsa dancing, encouraging clerks and justices alike to join her on the floor — and most of them did.

Biskupic writes that Justice Antonin Scalia, "who could shake things up in his own way, joked as people passed him near the doorway, saying, 'I knew she'd be trouble.' "

That scene gives you some idea why Biskupic titled her book Breaking In: The Rise of Sonia Sotomayor and the Politics of Justice. Sotomayor's career, including becoming the first Hispanic on the Supreme Court, has been all about shaking things up and defying expectations.

In 2013, Sotomayor published a bestselling memoir, My Beloved World, for which she received an advance of more than $3 million. It focused on her childhood, college years and early legal career, ending with her first appointment as a federal judge in New York.

"This book tells a different story," Biskupic writes. "Rather than biography, it examines the cultural and political shifts that merged with Sotomayor's life and led to her appointment. It is the tale of how the timing of her generation helped lift up the daughter of a nurse and factory worker. While Hispanics were emerging as a political force in America, Sotomayor was overcoming her own hurdles and walking the narrow line between identity and assimilation."

Biskupic, editor in charge for legal affairs at Reuters News and the author of biographies of Scalia and former Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, is well qualified to tell that story, having covered the Supreme Court for more than 20 years.

Biskupic does give us a condensed version of Sotomayor's childhood — the diabetes she was diagnosed with at age 8, the alcoholic father who died when she was 9, the ferociously hard-working but emotionally distant mother. The author puts that story into the larger context of the massive immigration of Puerto Ricans to the U.S. mainland over several decades in the mid 20th century and their struggle to overcome poverty and prejudice. Sotomayor often talks in speeches about being Nuyorican: "For those of you … who do not know what that term means: I am a born and bred New Yorker of Puerto Rican-born parents who came to the States during World War II."

From Sotomayor's school years onward, Biskupic focuses on "the double-edged consequences of her ethnic identity." When she entered Princeton in 1972 — just three years after that university first admitted women — "only about 10 percent of all Hispanics between the ages of eighteen and twenty were attending college" at all.

Sotomayor herself has said she was "the perfect affirmative-action baby": She was admitted as part of the Ivy League school's outreach to minority students, but she performed exceptionally well, graduating in the top 10 percent of her class and as one of two students to receive the Pyne Honor Prize, "the highest distinction Princeton conferred on an undergraduate."

She continued to exceed expectations of her, as a woman and as a Hispanic — in law school at Yale, as a prosecutor in the Manhattan district attorney's office, as a federal judge. Sotomayor sometimes aroused controversy, but it was often that tired old variety that categorizes assertive behavior by a man as positive leadership and the same behavior by a woman as "bossy," not to mention bias against Hispanics.

Biskupic catalogs Sotomayor's strengths: an intense work ethic, a gift for networking, an ability to analyze her own weaknesses and remedy them. She offers fascinating behind-the-scenes details about how court appointments happen, complete with all of the horse-trading and compromise casual observers never see. She also offers insight into how several other leading Hispanic jurists, such as Sotomayor mentor-turned-rival Jose Cabranes and conservative Miguel Estrada, did not manage to rise to the Supreme Court — in part, because of differences within the Hispanic community, which is as politically diverse as any other large group. And she takes a look at such dustups as the one surrounding the "wise Latina" remarks Sotomayor made during an obscure speech in 2001 that would explode into the news during her 2009 Senate confirmation hearings.

After describing that process, Biskupic gives us a look at Sotomayor's first years on the Supreme Court, where she continues to shake things up with a reputation for aggressive questioning during arguments and pointed dissents from her colleagues.

She also continues to be a touchstone and an inspiration for many. Biskupic notes that in 2013, Vice President Joe Biden asked that she swear him into office at a ceremony the day after President Barack Obama's second inauguration.

She agreed, but only if the ceremony could be rescheduled four hours earlier so that she could make it to a book signing in New York, where hundreds stood in line to meet her. "She knows," Biskupic writes, "it is her personal story, not legal opinions, that resonates with these audiences, and that may be her enduring legacy."

Contact Colette Bancroft at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

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