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A book-tour star, Sotomayor sees an even higher calling


CHICAGO » At her Wednesday night book talk here, Justice Sonia Sotomayor glided through her audience of 700, dispensing homespun wisdom through a cordless microphone, interrupted by impromptu applause.

When the moderator read a question from Tabbie Major, age 7, about which books Sotomayor loved as a child, she found the girl, locked her in an embrace, held on while reminiscing about Nancy Drew mysteries and then called out for a photographer to capture the moment. No need: A good portion of the crowd was already snapping pictures.

Welcome to another night in the life of Sonia Sotomayor, Supreme Court justice, current queen of the best-seller list and suddenly the nation’s most high-profile Hispanic figure. She may be a relative newcomer to national life, plucked from circuit-court obscurity less than four years ago. But the release of her new memoir, "My Beloved World," suggests she has broader ambitions than her colleagues, to play a larger and more personal role on the public stage.

Prior generations of justices mostly hid behind their robes to preserve their authority, and some current members of the court seem more like legal technicians, dispassionately adjusting the law. Sotomayor "makes it harder for the justices to appear neutral and detached, but that was always a fiction," said Geoffrey Stone, a law professor at the University of Chicago.

To say that Sotomayor is less cloistered than most of her predecessors and colleagues may be an understatement: Among many other appearances to promote her book, she salsa-danced with the Univision anchor Jorge Ramos in her chambers.

Other justices draw large crowds (particularly Antonin Scalia, known for his cheerfully pugnacious pronouncements) and have written No. 1 best-sellers (as Clarence Thomas did in 2007). But Sotomayor’s readings have the air of celebratory happenings, attended by entire families, people who left work early to line up for tickets and acolytes who quote her recent interviews from memory.

Excerpts from her book appeared in both People and People en Espanol magazines, and inauguration events were scheduled around her book tour. On Jan. 20, she administered the oath of office to Vice President Joe Biden at the early hour of 8:15 a.m., rather than just before noon as guided by the Constitution, because Sotomayor had to appear that afternoon at a Barnes & Noble in Manhattan.

In a backstage interview at the library where she appeared here, Sotomayor said that encouraging others through her personal story — the diabetic child of a poor, non-English-speaking alcoholic, the first Hispanic member of the court — was an even more important contribution than her jurisprudence.

"It is my great hope that I’ll be a great justice, and that I’ll write opinions that will last the ages," she said as she signed her way through giant stalagmites of books. "But that doesn’t always happen. More importantly, it’s only one measure of meaning in life. To me, the more important one is my values and my impact on people who feel inspired in any way by me."

Serving as a role model "is the most valuable thing I can do," she added.

The cornerstone of her effort is her memoir, which she said she modeled after President Barack Obama’s "Dreams From My Father," the book that helped make him a national figure. Her book, written with the assistance of Zara Houshmand, a poet, and published simultaneously in English and Spanish, has won praise for its emotional pull.

Sotomayor received a seven-figure advance for the book, and this coming Sunday it will appear atop the hardcover nonfiction best-seller list for the second straight week. Though her book has sold well by the standards of these dark days for hardcovers — 36,000 copies as of last Wednesday, according to BookScan — if it is incorporated into school curriculums, she could recoup her advance and earn royalties for years. (Unlike some members of the court, she did not come to the job with a large fortune.)

Sotomayor’s memoir is unusually frank by the standards of what government officials typically write. She emphasizes the fear and shame she has often felt: As a young child, she once heard relatives say her parents’ apartment was filthy. She began routinely scrubbing it so that no one could ever say that again.

Years later, when she visited Harvard’s admissions office, she was so intimidated that she fled mid-appointment for a train back to New York, even though the school had already admitted her.

"I disclose every fear I’ve ever had in this book," Sotomayor told her audience Wednesday night.

A brief highlight reel of audience responses: In Austin, Texas, about 1,500 people waited in the rain to see her, and rival booksellers combined their inventory to supply them with enough copies. Pamela Campos, an Air Force intelligence analyst and student at Portland State University in Oregon, drove 11 hours to an appearance in Northern California; at a networking meeting for Latina women beforehand, the group posed for a photo with books in hand.

Watching the justice in television interviews, "You want to just reach out and be her friend," Ana Flores, 40, who blogs about Latinos and child-rearing from Los Angeles, said in a telephone interview. "It doesn’t feel like she’s totally become part of the system."

Sotomayor, in the interview, said that being the child of an alcoholic made her especially good at reading emotions, a skill she now uses to assess her audiences. She began her event at the University of San Diego by dedicating the evening to Rosibel Mancillas Lopez, a law student she had met backstage, and her mother, Rosa Mancillas, who worked a paper route to help pay for her daughter’s education. The audience gasped and cheered.

It is not entirely clear where the justice and her newfound popularity go from here. Her book tour pauses after Tuesday, with just two more stops (Baltimore and Philadelphia) scheduled in coming weeks, and she has not yet decided how to handle her large pile of new invitations.

Asked if she would be the first justice with a Twitter account, she laughed and said no. But the public demand for her is "really big," she said, and she wants to focus in particular on speaking to students.

"I would like there to be no child in America who grows up not knowing what the Supreme Court is," she said. (She did not know it existed until she snatched minutes from her work-study job at the Princeton library to read reports of the 1978 Bakke case, in which the court struck down an affirmative action program at the University of California.)

She also seems aware that she is perhaps the foremost face of what might be called the current Latino moment, when the demographic group has received credit for helping re-elect Obama, who is now pushing for an overhaul of immigration laws.

"Was I thinking this book was going to affect the debate? No," Sotomayor said in the interview. "But I might have hoped, or do hope, that it helps inform the debate on some level," she said, by allowing readers to see through the eyes of an outsider.

A moment later, Sotomayor ended the interview to effusively greet the family of Mayor Rahm Emanuel of Chicago, who was to introduce her at the event — the latest politician to stress his claim to her. However, first she had a question for the booksellers. She had signed hundreds of books already, but she wanted to know if there were any more left in the box.

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