Justices and Their Personal Trials

When a Denver student asked Justice Sonia Sotomayor on Thursday about the “biggest sacrifice” Sotomayor had made to move ahead professionally, the justice paused and told her audience in the university auditorium (and on C-SPAN) she was about to say something “more personal than you may want” to hear. I thought about how – as was  widely reported during her 2009 nomination — Sotomayor had divorced young, then broken off an engagement in her 40s, and remained single now in her 50s. She had spoken bluntly early in her career about the toll work took on her romantic life, telling one interviewer: “A man who calls you three times and all three times you answer, ‘I’ve got to work late’ … after the third time, he begins thinking ‘Gee, maybe she’s not interested.’”

But last week the justice answered a question about personal sacrifice by talking about her elderly mother, Celina, who was hospitalized recently. The sacrifice, Sotomayor said was in “taking this job when I know that I am on the tail end of my mother’s life.” Sotomayor said she regretted work demands did not let her be with her mother right now.

Celina plainly has been the single most influential person in the justice’s life. When President Obama nominated Sotomayor to the Court in May 2009, she declared of the woman who had worked six days a week as a nurse to support the family, “I have often said that I am all I am because of her, and that I am only half the woman she is.” (Sotomayor’s father died when she was nine years old.)

Justices, typically appointed in their 50s, often come into office with elderly or deceased parents. Elena Kagan’s parents died even before her confirmation to solicitor general in March 2009. Justice Antonin Scalia’s parents died several months before he was nominated to the Court in June 1986. (They passed away within days of each other during the previous Christmas season.) “It took some of the sweetness out of it,” Scalia told me about his parents’ missing his nomination.

When the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist lost his mother (in 1988, when she was in her 90s), he answered condolences from colleagues by observing that no matter how old one is, a parent’s death takes a heavy toll. Rehnquist’s mother was the driver in that family. Sotomayor’s mother represents even more.