The Marver H. Bernstein Symposium brought United States Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor to Gaston Hall on Wednesday for a conversation entitled “A Life in the Law,” sponsored by the Office of the President and the government department.
After introductions by University President John J. DeGioia and Robert Katzmann, the chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, Georgetown University Law Center professor Eloise Pasachoff — who clerked for Sotomayor as her first year as justice — took over to guide the conversation.
Sotomayor opened with a few anecdotes about her initial encounters with Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and Justice John Paul Stevens, as well as her mission to introduce herself to every elevator clerk on day one.
Sotomayor emphasized that even though the court seems obtuse and divided, it is still important for the public to recognize the unique burden it faces. Her appearance in Gaston coincided with the day’s announcement of the Supreme Court’s decision to lift limits on private donations to political campaigns.
“You have to believe that this group of nine is passionate about finding the right answer. No matter what we all think the right answer is, we’re all filled with the same passion and that’s how I can stand to be on the losing side,” Sotomayor said. “We are the highest court. If you get it wrong, you are affecting people’s lives. If not forever then for a very long time.”
Throughout the event, she referenced her most recent book, her memoir, “My Beloved World,” of which every GOCard-holder in attendance received a signed copy. The book ties her childhood, growing up in a Spanish-speaking home in the Bronx, to her time at Princeton, Yale Law and her career in the New York Circuit Court, leading up to the confirmation process to the Supreme Court. Although now she is entrenched in her position in the Supreme Court for life, her New York ties still run deep.
“The Supreme Court would be perfect if I could cut it out and put it in lower Manhattan,” Sotomayor said.
When the session moved into answering student questions, submitted in writing at the beginning of the event, the discussion shifted to focus on her life as a Latina and how working in law as a minority woman was both vitally important and intensely difficult.
“I know that I used my minority status and people’s expectations of me to my advantage,” she said. “And I still do that.”
Her stories of the dismissive lawyers and disrespectful treatment that peppered her entire career on the bench clearly illustrate that, for many, it is hard to separate the stereotypes associated with her background from her reputation as an esteemed judicial scholar.
“Someone told me I only got into Yale because I was Latina,” she said. “I told them that may be true, but that it didn’t hurt that I graduated summa cum laude, Phi Kappa Alpha from Princeton.”
Sotomayor’s words resonated with members of the audience.
“I think it was really important for a lot of people to hear that, especially as a Chinese-American student here I think a lot of that stuff is relevant to me as well, especially hearing about different challenges that minorities have in society today,” Daniel Choy (SFS ’15) said.
“I thought she was really engaging and it was great to hear a firsthand perspective and even how she had her own fears and doubts as a Supreme Court justice,” Eric Sheets (SFS ’17) said.