Sonia Sotomayor: There is 'still a need' for affirmative action

In her new memoir, “My Beloved World,’’ Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor writes candidly about  being raised by a single mother in the Bronx after her father's death and her fight against Type 1 diabetes, as well as her journey to make history.

Sotomayor, 58, the daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants, received full scholarships to Princeton University and Yale Law School with help from affirmative action programs. She spoke with TODAY's Savannah Guthrie about what bearing her upbringing may have on issues — including affirmative action policies — she must now address.

“The initial plans that I was a beneficiary of were very different,’’ Sotomayor told Guthrie in the interview, which aired Monday. “They said to schools and to employers, ‘You can't limit your hiring from pools that are segregated.’ The plans that the courts were dealing with over the years were plans that had fixed quotas, plans that specified that certain numbers of minorities had to be taken into schools.

“When I call myself an affirmative action baby, I'm talking about the essence of what affirmative action was when it started.”

While affirmative action has come under fire from the likes of Sotomayor’s fellow Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas, she believes that policy still has a place.

“There's still a need for people to be sensitive to the fact that they feel more comfortable with people who look like them,’’ said Sotomayor, the court's first-ever Hispanic justice. “And that you have to be conscious about the way in which the structures you put into place will limit the opportunities for others.”

Sotomayor experienced the issue's controversial sting in high school. 

"You can't be a minority in this society without having someone express disapproval about affirmative action,'' she said on "60 Minutes" Sunday. "From the first day I received in high school a card from Princeton telling me that it was possible that I was gonna get in, I was stopped by the school nurse and asked why I was sent a possible and the number one and the number two in the class were not. Now I didn't know about affirmative action. But from the tone of her question I understood that she thought there was something wrong with them looking at me and not looking at those other two students." 

Though Sotomayor believes the court's controversial decisions allow for dialogue to begin, she knows that there's a price for the losing side.

“Oh my God, I don't think you can say anyone looks forward to controversy,’’ she said. “ I think that the day a justice forgets that each decision comes at a cost to someone, then I think you start losing your humanity.”

The Supreme Court has often been deeply divided, but Sotomayor said it's the issues, not the partisanship, that draw the line.

“It doesn’t fracture along the ideological lines,’’ Sotomayor said. “It fractures possibly more often on your basic interpretive approach.”

The second half of Sotomayor's TODAY airs Tuesday, as she tells Guthrie about her difficult childhood in the Bronx, her struggles with diabetes and more. 


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