Surveying her Monday-morning audience in White Plains, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor noticed a change in the attire of law students from her campus days more than three decades ago. “When I went to law school, I lived in dungarees and T-shirts,” said the 58-year-old, Bronx-raised jurist, who has served on the nation’s highest court since 2009.
Many in her Pace Law School audience share that casual dress code, but had donned suits and ties, business dresses and pantsuits on a historic day at Pace Law School, which was hosting the first visit by a U.S. Supreme Court justice to its North Broadway campus.
This Supreme Court justice, though, already was personally and professionally known by some at Pace, where in 1999 she mentored law students in the Federal Judicial Honors Program as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. During her Nov. 12 visit, Sotomayor, the Supreme Court’s first Hispanic justice, met with current and past students in that honors program and with members of the school’s Latin American Law Students Association.
Fielding questions from her audience in the law library’s moot courtroom, Sotomayor dispensed advice on career and law school choices and dispelled some popular notions about judges’ bias and guiding philosophies on the Supreme Court.
In an exchange with law school alumni on the relative benefits of working at small or large law firms and pursuing clerkships in judges’ offices, she called herself “the pusher for public service.” Citing her own early experience as an assistant district attorney in Manhattan, she said the D.A.’s office is “a great place to experience working on a lot of things” at a quick pace.
“To me, being in the law is public service,” she said. “It’s about helping people and institutions manage their problems.”
Sotomayor stressed the importance of finding mentors among law school professors and in the course of one’s legal career. If a law student graduates without having met one mentor for life, “You’ve done yourself a disservice because you haven’t found someone who can actually guide you.”
She spoke passionately of the careful crafting and “artistry” that goes into a Supreme Court decision. “It’s that artistry that is so engaging. … It’s learning how to write and how to write to persuade. If you leave law school learning anything, learn that. Writing is the lawyer’s craft.”
Asked about her judicial philosophy, she said she does not fit any of the categories ascribed to Supreme Court judges, many of whom depart in their decisions from the philosophies to which they’re linked. “I do put, above all, process,” she said, and “making sure that people are fairly heard.”
“I am very, very case-oriented” – facts-oriented, she said.
Judicial activism, she said, “is a meaningless label. It’s a label used by the losing party in a case.” Judges draw from a “toolbox” of case precedents and statutory interpretations. “We’re all using the same tools to arrive at different interpretations,” she said.
Asked about the Senate confirmation hearings required of Supreme Court nominees, Sotomayor said they are “doomed to failure” because senators want to know the nominee’s position on “hot-ticket items.” No judges “worth their salt” will say how they’d rule in advance of hearing a case. As a result, “You’re never going to have a satisfactory confirmation and nomination process,” she said.
For a nominee, Sotomayor said, the confirmation hearing is the only time “that the nation is actually getting to meet you, to understand something about who you are as a person. I think that has great value.”
Asked what alternative careers she had considered, Sotomayor paused a beat. “It is so horrible to admit this: there is nothing else I ever wanted to do. I’m not sure there’s anything else I’d be good at.”
Reading Nancy Drew crime mysteries as a child, Sotomayor wanted to be a detective. But she was physically limited by juvenile diabetes, a condition that she was told would keep her from a detective’s career. Instead, inspired by Perry Mason, the ever-winning lawyer in the popular television courtroom drama, she opted to pursue a career in law.
“I never seriously considered any alternatives,” she said. “I don’t know if I would have found happiness with anything else.”
On the Supreme Court, “I’m dealing with the most important legal questions in the world,” she said. For her, “It’s the best job in the world.”
The court does need more variety of legal experience among its justices, she said, and should include civil rights lawyers and those “who have represented every part of our society.” Sotomayor, the third female justice named to the court, suggested it might be better served by the addition of women, whom she noted make up about half of law school student bodies.
She told of President Obama approaching Supreme Court Justice Ruth Ginsburg after he had appointed Sotomayor and Elena Kagan to the nine-member court. “Justice Ginsburg, are you happy I brought you two sisters?” the president asked.
“I’m very, very happy,” Ginsburg replied, “but I’ll be happier when you bring me five.”