Justice Sonia Sotomayor engaged the audience like an ambassador.
The U.S. Supreme Court justice delivered most of her responses at the 2016 Stein Lecture on Oct. 17 in Northrop Auditorium at the University of Minnesota while walking, explaining that she has a difficult time sitting still.
The lecture is really a conversation between Minneapolis lawyer and former U of M law dean Robert Stein and his guest. When Sotomayor said she wanted to leave the stage, Stein joked that he wasn’t used to being up there alone.
Sotomayor walked through the audience, spoke to people, shook hands, posed for pictures, listened to Stein’s questions and composed her answer simultaneously. She cautioned attendees not to make any sudden moves because the marshals protecting her would get nervous.
The audience seemed to believe they were watching a rock star.
Many in the country would agree with Garry Jenkins, the University of Minnesota Law School dean, who said that Sotomayor has brought a new jurisprudence of empathy and realism to the court. “She understands the impact of doctrine on the world,” Jenkins said, introducing her.
Gazing at the packed auditorium, the justice’s first remark was “I didn’t know [Minnesota] was this big.”
‘My Beloved World’
Sotomayor’s memoir, ‘My Beloved World,’ published in 2013, is the story of her life with an alcoholic father living in a housing project in the Bronx. In response to Stein’s question about her childhood, Sotomayor said she was diagnosed with diabetes at the age of 7. Disease had a huge impact on her career. Having a chronic disease at a young age “makes you scared or gives you a sense of prizing life,” she said. That was one gift from diabetes, she said. Sensing that her life would be short, Sotomayor said she developed discipline and determination to “squeeze” as much out of it as she could. That was another gift.
Early in life, Sotomayor said, she wanted to be a judge, although her only exposure to the legal world was from watching “Perry Mason” on television. “There were no lawyers in the housing project,” she dryly said. Mason never lost a trial and always he got somebody in the courtroom to confess. Sotomayor knew even then that was unreal, but she learned that Mason was helping people who were being threatened by authority.
She also observed that while Mason played out the drama, the case wasn’t over until the judge released the defendant from custody. “Perry did all the work but the final word was the judge’s. I wanted to be the judge.”
Which she did. She was appointed to the U.S. District Court by President George H.W. Bush, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 1997 by President Bill Clinton (although not confirmed until 1998) and to the Supreme Court in 2009 by President Barack Obama. She is the third woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, following Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, appointed to the court in 1981 and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, named in 1993. Justice Elena Kagan was appointed by Obama in 2010.
Hope and fear
When O’Connor was appointed, Sotomayor was practicing in the district attorney’s office in Manhattan. There were no women chiefs or assistant chiefs in the DA’s office and the head judges were all men, she said.
“All of a sudden it was on the front page of the New York Times—a woman justice who couldn’t get a job when she graduated from law school.” Sotomayor paused in her trek around Northrop near a young girl in the audience, and directed her remarks to her. “It meant hope. I could aspire [to become a judge]. Doors had to open,” she said.
“O’Connor was an icon and remains so to this day,” Sotomayor said.
Later, becoming a justice, Sotomayor found herself in fear. “I was scared. Seriously. I was petrified.” Her first argument was “in a little case called Citizens United.” She said she prepared for a month on the case and wrote out two pages of questions, knowing she wouldn’t be able to ask many of them.
Citizen’s United v. Federal Elections Commission ruled in 2010 that corporations had First Amendment rights and could spend as much as they wanted to on political candidates. Sotomayor concurred in one part of the majority opinion and joined with Ginsburg and Justice Steven Breyer in a dissent/concurrence written by Justice John Paul Steven that concluded, “the Court’s opinion is thus a rejection of the common sense of the American people … few outside the majority of this Court would have thought [democracy’s] flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics.”
(The justices concurred on some disclosure and identification requirements of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, also known as the McCain-Feingold Act.)
In response to various audience questions, Sotomayor discussed being the first Latina judge, immigration and international law. Her theme throughout was community and collegiality. As for being the first Latina judge, she said, “I wish there had been others before me. I certainly don’t feel I’m a justice just for Hispanics.”
But when she sees the emotion felt by other Latinos who see her in her position, she understands the importance of being “first.”
“When we see the doors open it puts us in a better place. For people who have been outsiders, its gives us possibilities of dreaming and having those dreams come true.”
Sotomayor encountered the negative side of being first when she was nominated to the Supreme Court and opponents countered that she was an affirmative action pick. Many wrote that she was not smart enough, assuming that because she was a Latina from New York she wasn’t intelligent, Sotomayor continued. It was very hurtful and she seriously considered withdrawing from consideration. “At every stage of my life I met people who made me feel that way. Every stage of the way I’ve had to prove them wrong.”
Sotomayor has supported affirmative action from the bench and also to say that it opened doors for her. In 2014 in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, she read from her dissent on the bench. “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race, and to apply the Constitution with eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination,” she wrote.
She also has had supporters at every stage that weren’t there because of affirmative action, Sotomayor said. When she got to her first law firm, she found Cynthia Fischer – a 1975 U of M law school grad, who was present at Northrop. Fisher showed her how to be tenacious in standing up to men and demonstrated that women could be as “passionate and committed to the law as anyone else,” she said.
Sotomayor also learned she “could be feminine and still respected — and feared.”
Men also helped Sotomayor, she said. “There weren’t a lot of women to look to so I had so look to mean of good will, of which there were so many.”