Chapters 18–22

In this memoir, Sonia Sotomayor recounts her childhood in the South Bronx, her education and early work as a lawyer, and her eventual appointment to the Supreme Court of the United States.
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definitions & notes only words
  1. diffuse
    spread out; not concentrated in one place
    If the immediate threat to public safety had lifted after the lights and air conditioning came back on, New Yorkers still had reason to live in a state of diffuse chronic fear.
  2. doldrums
    a state of inactivity
    The city’s fiscal troubles summed a decade of economic doldrums nationwide, and severe budget cuts were preventing the DA’s Office, as well as the police department, from adding enough staff to cope with an avalanche of criminal cases.
  3. racketeer
    carry on illegal business activities
    We would cut our teeth on misdemeanors: petty thefts, minor assaults, prostitution, shoplifting, trespass, disorderly conduct, graffiti….Later we would be promoted to felonies, and we might move to one of the bureaus that investigate fraud, racketeering, public corruption, sex crimes, or other specialized crimes.
  4. arraign
    call before a court to answer an indictment
    If a defendant is arraigned on an unsworn complaint, how many days do you have to fix it?
  5. commodious
    large and roomy
    Eventually, turnover would deposit me in slightly more commodious shared space, though my desk still blocked the entrance, behind which door was wedged an old couch, horsehair poking out of cracked leather.
  6. minutia
    a small or minor detail
    What I did see, in the small corner of my awareness not cluttered with cases, procedures, and the minutiae of criminal law, was Kevin finally doing work that excited him and earning recognition for it.
  7. tangential
    of superficial relevance if any
    Somehow by pure instinct I realized that a witness had implied vaguely that she had seen something, though she avoided stating it outright. On cross-examination, I asked an apparently tangential question that led her to describe the precise conditions that would have made a direct line of sight impossible for her.
  8. arcane
    requiring secret or mysterious knowledge
    Public awareness of voir dire is much greater these days thanks to media coverage of high-profile trials, to say nothing of television court dramas, and the science of juror selection that has spawned an industry of consultants. But when I joined the DA’s Office, it was all rather arcane stuff, especially since New York State is one of the few jurisdictions where lawyers can get involved in the process, which in many states, as in the federal system, is handled by judges.
  9. subpoena
    serve a witness with a writ to compel attendance
    I subpoenaed the defendant’s wife.
  10. reconvene
    meet or cause to meet again
    But any pleasure I might have derived from my first conviction vanished when we reconvened for sentencing.
  11. feign
    give a false appearance of
    “I think Ms. Cardi is right,” I heard myself saying, without premeditation, and feigning a self-assurance I wasn’t feeling inside.
  12. concession
    a point that is yielded
    She was stunned by my concession, which seemed especially strange for a beginner, given that a prosecutor’s career is built on a reputation for toughness and winning stiff sentences.
  13. fraternize
    be on friendly terms with someone, as if with a brother
    Despite the unofficial rule against fraternization between prosecutors and defense attorneys, we became friends, and as we did, our conversations often edged into bigger themes.
  14. derelict
    forsaken by owner or inhabitants
    Without life skills, unable to find a job, he survived by selling copper pipes that he stripped from a derelict building, not fully aware that this was theft.
  15. expediency
    the quality of being suited to the end in view
    With each prosecutor handling around a hundred cases at a time, expediency and rough justice were the order of the day.
  16. triage
    sorting and allocating aid on the basis of need
    We fudged, we made do with the tools at hand, we performed triage in the trenches, but we still made an effort to do it with integrity.
  17. unremitting
    uninterrupted in time and indefinitely long continuing
    Maybe my prosecuting misdemeanors with a ferocity usually reserved for felonies looked to some like real fire in the belly. In reality, it was still more like butterflies and the unremitting fear of leaving anything to chance that made me prepare and argue so intensively.
  18. acquit
    pronounce not guilty of criminal charges
    “It’s weak. But we have the indictment, and it’s our job to prosecute. Let the jury do theirs; they’ll acquit him.”
  19. endear
    make attractive or lovable
    “And now, obviously,” he shouted, “you’re going to tell me that you’re new and need a month to prepare!” I promised him that if he gave me fifteen minutes to confirm the availability of the witness, I’d be ready for trial the following week. That endeared me to him permanently.
  20. bravado
    a swaggering show of courage
    With plenty of misdemeanor trials under my belt, I had enough confidence—or the bravado of ignorance—to trust my performance under pressure.
  21. exacting
    severe and unremitting in making demands
    He was painfully exacting and infamously unforgiving of lawyers who wasted his time, on one occasion sending defense counsel to jail for ten days for preventing the start of a trial.
  22. epithet
    descriptive word or phrase
    He was known as the Prince of Darkness, Dr. Doom, and Yahweh, among other epithets, particularly for striking terror in the heart of defendants whenever one with a weak case would decline his offer of a plea.
  23. acumen
    shrewdness shown by keen insight
    Behind the infernal humor, a formidable clarity of mind and a keen legal acumen kept the docket moving with astonishing efficiency.
  24. docket
    the calendar of a court
    Behind the infernal humor, a formidable clarity of mind and a keen legal acumen kept the docket moving with astonishing efficiency.
  25. discretion
    freedom to act or judge on one's own
    Even the most perfectly logical argument, absent passion, would make the choice seem like one of personal discretion rather than solemn duty.
  26. innate
    inborn or existing naturally
    Granting myself permission to use my innate skills of the heart, accepting that emotion was perfectly valid in the art of persuasion, amounted to nothing less than a breakthrough.
  27. indictment
    a formal document charging a person with some offense
    It changed my entire approach to jurors, from the voir dire to the structure of my summations, and the results spoke for themselves: I never lost a case again. I had hung juries a couple of times, and once or twice a conviction on fewer than all counts of the indictment, but never an acquittal.
  28. paramount
    having superior power and influence
    Such attentiveness also figures in upholding one of a litigator’s paramount responsibilities: not to bore the jury.
  29. palpable
    capable of being perceived
    If you are palpably present in the moment, continuously mindful of and responsive to your listeners, they will follow where you lead.
  30. implausible
    having a quality that provokes disbelief
    But to me that made sense only if you saw all people of color as potential perpetrators and believed, even more implausibly, that they all saw one another that way too.
  31. litigation
    a legal proceeding in a court
    At PRLDEF I worked on the litigation committee, which hired the staff lawyers and set strategy for the types of cases we would take on.
  32. graft
    offering something to gain an illicit advantage
    The need for oversight in the financing of the electoral process was dramatic, not only to guard against graft, but to ensure access for candidates who would be excluded if money alone determined the race.
  33. entrenched
    established firmly and securely
    What appealed to me was the possibility of devising a structural solution to a long- entrenched problem simply by creating an appropriate set of rules. That’s as elegant as ethics gets.
  34. partisan
    devoted to a cause or political group
    It would matter crucially that I was familiar to people of influence who, though recognizing that I did not involve myself in partisan efforts, could see that I was at least an honest broker.
  35. rancor
    a feeling of deep and bitter anger and ill-will
    Kevin and I talked through the details without rancor. We agreed that I would assume our credit card debt, since I was the one bothered by it. In return I got custody of the Honda Civic.
  36. trappings
    ornaments; embellishments to or characteristic signs of
    In the end, I sold my wedding ring to pay the lawyer who handled our divorce. Saddened though I was at seeing Kevin leave, I was no more sentimental about the formal trappings of marriage than I had been on our wedding day.
  37. dogmatic
    pertaining to a code of beliefs accepted as authoritative
    Still, in Abuelita’s family, blood ultimately came first, and she strongly favored her own. My mother, being more or less an orphan, poor in kinfolk, approached the matter less dogmatically.
  38. affinity
    a natural attraction or feeling of kinship
    I adore kids and have a special affinity with them, an ability to see the world through their eyes that most adults seem to lose. I can match any kid’s stubbornness, hour for hour. I don’t baby anyone; when we play games, I play to win. I treat kids as real people.
  39. forgo
    do without or cease to hold or adhere to
    Most women of my generation who entered professional life did not forgo motherhood, and many did succeed at both. But they paid a price, one still paid by most women who work outside the home (and men too, I believe, if they parent wholeheartedly): a life of perpetual internal compromise that leaves you always feeling torn.
  40. pernicious
    exceedingly harmful
    But we would do well to abandon the myth of “having it all,” career and family, with no sacrifice to either, together with the pernicious notion that a woman who chooses one or the other is somehow deficient.
Created on February 13, 2020 (updated February 18, 2020)

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