WRITTEN BY CHARLES CALOIA
Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor was received as part of SFC’s Volpe Lecture Series on February 2nd, 2017. Sotomayor shared her insights on college life, transitioning from lawyer to judge, and the responsibilities of checks and balances.
A Bronx native, Sotomayor earned her B.A. graduating summa cum laude from Princeton University and a J.D. from Yale Law School, concurrently jumpstarting her long career working in New York’s circuit and district courts. Appointed by President Barack Obama in 2009, she is the third woman and the first Latina justice to preside in the Supreme Court of the United States, sharing an honor with the still-presiding Ruth Bader Ginsberg and the retired Sandra Day-O’Connor.
Justice Sotomayor held the lecture in conversation with SFC alumna, Jones Day Associate and friend Sparkle Sooknanan, ’02. Sotomayor praised Sooknanan, expressing “I came [to SFC] because of Sparkle,” also addressing her audience of students and faculty, saying “thank you for being you.”
In talking about college life, Sotomayor mainly discussed finding a calling while still young. “This is the place that gives you that table of choices…you have no idea what will be interesting to you.” In an anecdote about a niece, she shared similar advice: “don’t despair.” Sotomayor shared about how this niece eventually found work that she found satisfying.
What drew her most to law was a question that emerged after a short time practicing medicine, which she found “not uplifting”: “how is it that I want to help people?…my greatest strength was helping people in their relationships…and that’s what a lawyer does…I knew that’s what I liked doing.”
After Yale, she was employed and mentored by Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morganthau, meeting at a “public interest panel” after-party. After working cases under Morganthau, Sotomayor had a newfound strength in her deliberations: “I learned to persuade…convince [a jury] when they didn’t feel comfortable [litigating].” She owes her early successes to three factors: “logic,” “persuasion,” and “punching people in the gut.”
After some time in criminal law, Sotomayor moved into civil law, which taught her “the skills of business development…international law had been my area of study [focusing on balancing] the needs of employees and employers…we need both.”
Sotomayor addressed workplace inequality, saying “I wish that could say that we have reached equality…the statistics are startling…there are probably more women in the lower administrative positions [of academia], but the higher is still dominated by men…you know you’d never call a male judge ‘honey.’ [this remark was a joking one from a fellow judge to a plaintiff.]”
Sotomayor shared another anecdote, relating to fellow New York Justice, the late Antonin Scalia. “’Sonia, you’re a bulldog…’ I’m a New Yorker too…there’s something about New York that turns you into a bulldog…in a good way.”
To lighten the mood, a student question submitted prior to the event ask about what Sotomayor does in her downtime: “I’m love jazz…my favorite thing to do is to play poker.” She also mentioned regular bike rides and gym workouts.
To end the discussion, Sotomayor looked to the future of the Supreme Court and the responsibilities of the American citizen: “most juries are picked…that underrepresent communities…of all the trials I was a part of…[two] I disagreed with as a judge…I believe in the jury…I think it sets us apart from the world in a very positive way…we hope there will be more diversity, not just in gender…but in professional experience…every Justice is an Ivy Leaguer…it’s not a bad thing, but it’s not a good thing either.”