Sonia Sotomayor said she knew just how significantly her life had changed when she attended her family's holiday celebration this past New Year's Day, her first since taking her seat on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Sotomayor's Puerto Rican family from the South Bronx, N.Y., are known for being loud and boisterous and talking over each other, she said. But this year, when she spoke, the room went quiet.
"Nobody ever listens to each other. But they were listening to me," Sotomayor said, drawing laughter from 600 lawyers, judges and others Friday night in Johnson County. "And now they're rewriting history. My mother is now saying I was the perfect child."
Sotomayor is the Supreme Court justice in charge of overseeing the 10th Circuit, which includes Kansas. She was in Overland Park to speak at a dinner honoring 150 years of the federal court in this state.
But despite her role as the first Hispanic woman to sit on the nation's highest court, she still sees herself as a little girl "with Shirley Temple curls" who was inspired to study law by watching Perry Mason's television courtroom dramas of the 1960s.
She told the audience Friday that she had no idea what kind of impact her appointment to the Supreme Court would have on others, like her, a first-generation American from a family of immigrants.
"One of the greatest surprises I have experienced in my nomination, my appointment, has been how it has cut across all Hispanic groups." Sotomayor said. "Not just Puerto Ricans are excited about the fact that I had been nominated. There is not a Hispanic child, adult, older person who doesn't tell me that they stand a little prouder."
It's not just Hispanics that celebrate her success. Sotomayor recalled strolling around the Roosevelt Memorial, looking at the cherry blossoms, during her first spring in Washington D.C.
Suddenly, an Albanian woman ran up to Sotomayor, grabbed her and hugged her.
"My marshals were beside themselves," Sotomayor said of the security patrol accompanying her.
Sotomayor was surprised, too.
"She cried and she said to me, 'You are the embodiment of the freedom of this country,' " Sotomayor remembered the woman saying. " 'Thank you for letting me feel that my children have a chance.' "
Sotomayor's background became a focus during contentious Senate confirmation hearings, where her opponents tried to use culture to question her fairness.
She also told Friday's audience that she's learned the court with the last say on the law of the land needs nine divergent voices.
To make that point, Sotomayor remembered receiving a phone call from Justice David Souter, whom she replaced in 2009. She said he told her how he learned the value of differing opinions.
"He told me, 'It was the day that I realized that all of my colleagues were people of good faith and good sense, ' " Sotomayor told the audience. " 'That every one of my colleagues – even the people I disagreed with– were passionate about this country, passionate about the constitution and passionate about trying cases. And I realized even when we disagreed, it was out of love for the things we all valued.'
"His words have resonated with me," she said.