Justice Sonia Sotomayor makes herself at home in Washington

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WASHINGTON -- Justice Sonia Sotomayor is a proud daughter of New York City, and her adjustment to life in the nation's capital has been rocky. Do not get her started, for instance, about ordering takeout.

"I go to New York, I order food, it's at my door in 10 to 15 minutes. OK?" she said in an interview in her Supreme Court chambers. In Washington, she said, "there isn't a place I call where it doesn't take 45 minutes."

"And then getting the food delivered to the Supreme Court? They've got to stop at security, security has to call you, you've got to go downstairs. By the time you get downstairs you may add another 15 minutes to the 45 minutes. And the food is ice-cold."

There are four justices from New York City these days, each representing a different borough, and it sometimes seems that the court speaks with a New York accent.

Justice Sotomayor, who grew up in the Bronx, recalled getting to know Justice Antonin Scalia, who is from Queens and whose friends call him Nino.

"One day Nino looked at me and said: 'You're a real New Yorker. I love you. You take as well as you give,' " she said with a big laugh. "And I understood. You know, we're just out there and up front and fun."

She mentioned a second colleague, Justice Elena Kagan. "I dare say Elena has a little bit of that." Justice Kagan is from Manhattan, and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who is more reserved, is from Brooklyn.

"The boroughs are different," Justice Sotomayor said, "and so are we."

The occasion for the chat was the publication of her memoir, "My Beloved World." It is steeped in vivid memories of New York City, and it is an exceptionally frank account of the challenges that Justice Sotomayor faced during her ascent from a public housing project to the court's marble palace on First Street.

Justice Sotomayor turns out to be a writer of depth and literary flair, a surprise to readers of her judicial prose. ("I am a lawyer's judge," she said on hearing the observation. "I write very technically.")

Her chambers are sleek, modern, filled with light and bursting with pottery, art and mementos. There are photographs of her relatives, a group portrait of the four women ever to serve on the Supreme Court and one of Justice Sotomayor with President Barack Obama, who appointed her in 2009. In a corner, there is a bag overflowing with characters from "Sesame Street," where she has been known to dispense advice. ("Pretending to be a princess is fun, but it is definitely not a career," she said in an appearance on the show in November, offering alternatives: "You can go to school and train to be a teacher, a lawyer, a doctor, an engineer and even a scientist.")

And there is a sign of the sort you might find in the novelty section of a gift shop: "Well-behaved women rarely make history." Justice Sotomayor's book ends in 1992 with her appointment to U.S. District Court in Manhattan. There are only stray references in the memoir to her service there, on the U.S. Court of Appeals in New York, where she served from 1998 to 2009, and on the Supreme Court.

But her life story -- which includes chapters at Princeton, Yale Law School, the Manhattan district attorney's office and private practice as a civil litigator -- illuminates her judicial work.

She acknowledged that she entered the Ivy League through "a special door" and that her adjustment was rough.

"I felt like an alien landing in a different universe," she said of her arrival at Princeton.

Her childhood was so urban that she confused cows and horses.

"I didn't know what a cricket sounded like," she said.

She was part of a vanguard not always welcomed by the old order. In the book, she recalled letters in The Daily Princetonian "lamenting the presence on campus of 'affirmative action students,' each of whom had presumably displaced a far more deserving affluent white male and could rightly be expected to crash into the gutter built of her own unrealistic aspirations."

"There were vultures circling, ready to dive when we stumbled," she wrote.

She did not stumble. On graduating, she was awarded the Pyne Prize, the university's highest undergraduate award, presented for a combination of academic success and extracurricular work.

Asked if the programs from which she benefited are still needed, she was initially vague, perhaps as a consequence of a pending case about the constitutionality of the University of Texas' affirmative action plan.

"We have to look and ensure that we're paying attention to what we're doing," she said, so "that we don't reflexively institute processes and procedures that exclude people without thought."

Her bottom line, though, was clear.

"We've got a way to go still," she said. "I mean, clearly, we do." After her second year at law school, Justice Sotomayor spent a summer working at a prominent New York City law firm, Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison. The vast majority of summer associates at big law firms in those days received offers for full-time jobs, but she did not. She called the experience "a kick in the teeth."

Asked why she chose to discuss the matter, she said: "If I write a book where all I've ever experienced is success, people won't take a positive lesson from it. In being candid, I have to own up to my own failures, both in my marriage and in my work environment." (She married Kevin Noonan, now a biologist and patent lawyer, after graduating from Princeton in 1976. They divorced in 1983.)

Justice Sotomayor said she started to make her peace with life in Washington after "eight months of grieving." She recalled a morning drive down Rock Creek Parkway that allowed her to see the city fresh.

"I thought to myself, 'This is a really beautiful city,' " she said. "It's a very different life than New York. The pace is really different, and for the breakneck speed at which you live in New York, this could be a little slow at times."

In her book, she confesses that she does not always observe the letter of the law.

"I'm a New Yorker," she wrote, "and I jaywalk with the best of them."

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