Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor spoke to the Pace Law School community on November 12, 2012. Nominated to the Supreme Court by President Obama in 2009, Justice Sotomayor is the first Hispanic Justice and only the third female Justice to serve on the nation’s highest Court. In her visit to Pace, Justice Sotomayor candidly answered questions from students and provided insight into everything from choosing mentors to the importance of process in our legal system.
Law, to Justice Sotomayor, is public service—an understanding she attempts to advance in all that she does. Her desire to be a lawyer, however, arose not from some intrinsic devotion to public service, but rather from her reading Nancy Drew books and watching episodes of Perry Mason on television. As a young girl, she originally wanted to be a detective, but because of her juvenile diabetes, she was told that ambition was unrealistic. So, she did the next best thing: become a lawyer. Justice Sotomayor also knew, from a young age, that she ultimately wanted to be a judge, a career goal she acknowledges is uncommon. Then again, Justice Sotomayor is far from common in many respects.
When asked to define her judicial philosophy, Justice Sotomayor flatly (and somewhat surprisingly) stated, “I don’t have one.” She proceeded to tick off the philosophies most often cited—strict constructionism, textualism, and even evolving constitutionalism—before revealing her primary focus: process. To Justice Sotomayor, making sure that people are fairly heard is the single most important function of our system. In her mantra, “above all, process,” is a commitment to the common law system of justice, a system that, rather than predetermining final decisions, instead focuses on the individual facts of each unique case. Deciding the outcome of cases is not, in Justice Sotomayor’s mind, the role of the adjudicator; it is the province of law, and the judge merely serves as gatekeeper in the determination of which law applies to any given controversy. On whether this role is ever influenced by public opinion, the Justice spiritedly responded that because judges are not politicians they should not take the public’s “temperature” to determine support. However, she noted that, on occasion, she does worry about how to explain her decisions in a way that is understandable to the public, since public confidence is so critical to the smooth operation of our system of law.
Justice Sotomayor further stressed the fact that, as law students, we are being trained to help people manage their relationships with one another. Mentors are an important part of learning this art, and she believes that choosing one should be a calculated decision. Several great sources for developing a lasting mentorship are externships with potential employers and clerkships with judges. When asked if she regretted anything about her career path, the Justice joked that it would be a little disingenuous for someone in her position—a Supreme Court Justice—to complain about anything. However, after a moment’s thought, she cited as her biggest regret her failure to clerk for a judge after she graduated from law school. Such an experience, in her opinion, is worth up to eight years of actual practice, so not only did she miss out on the chance to develop a mentor-mentee relationship in that context, but she also passed up on an opportunity to further her own career. Regardless, it does not seem to have held her back.
Finally, when asked for her opinion on what women bring to the bench, Justice Sotomayor was unequivocal in recognizing their importance. Citing United States v. Virginia—wherein Justice Ginsburg, for the majority of the Court, acknowledged an equality issue with respect to a male-only admissions policy at a Virginia military academy—Justice Sotomayor underscored the importance of female Justices to the furtherance of equal protection. She believes that with President Obama’s two nominations—the other being Justice Elena Kagan—the Court has begun to keep pace with the advancements of women generally in society. The presence of women has, to Justice Sotomayor, added a perspective to the Court absent when composed only of men.
Justice Sotomayor’s visit was truly an historical event for the Pace Law School community. Her carefully considered, yet completely candid remarks undoubtedly left an impression on every person who was lucky enough to attend her talk. The advice she provided that day—from how to make the most of law school to succeeding in practice—resonates with both students and practitioners alike, and is invaluable in a world where competition for recognition is fierce.