In Breaking In: The Rise of Sonia Sotomayor and the Politics of Justice, biographer Joan Biskupic describes the many fearless and ambitious ways that Justice Sonia Sotomayor has changed the cultural and political landscape of the Supreme Court. In an anecdote that the author finds particularly symbolic of her subject's career, she tells of a party at which Sotomayor insisted that her fellow judges dance to salsa music, an activity that had been unseen and was frowned upon at SCOTUS events up until that point.
As reported by NPR:
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 at the court, with painted portraits of past chief justices decorating the walls. It is 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 happens.
Justice Sotomayor "springs from her chair" and tells the law clerks that while their skits were fine, "they lacked a certain something." With that, "she gets her clerks to cue salsa music, and she goes one by one and gets the justices" — some of them extremely reluctant — "to dance with her." Justice Anthony Kennedy "did a jitterbug move." Others were less willing; 90-year-old Justice John Paul Stevens "felt as if he had two left feet" and quickly sat down.
The scene is telling in many ways. As Biskupic observes in her book, "It had been a difficult term, and Sotomayor's enthusiasm was catching. [Justice Antonin] Scalia, who could shake things up in his own way," joked as he left the room at the end of the program, "I knew she'd be trouble."
"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. She was just busting those," Biskupic told Morning Edition.
According to Biskupic, the incident with the salsa music is very telling of who Justice Sotomayor is because, rather than shy away from her Puerto Rican heritage to fit in with her fellow Justices (most of whom are white), she instead brought it to the foreground and refused to play meek.
"She's someone who got ahead by standing out. She got ahead by not waiting her turn," Biskupic adds.
And thank goodness for that.
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