U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor spoke of her career and her life as a member of the nation’s highest court during a conversation with students at the University of Chicago Law School on Monday morning.
President Barack Obama appointed Sotomayor to the Supreme Court in 2009. The biggest surprise in her new role, she said, is “how much more burdensome the decision-making process has felt,” because the Court’s rulings are the final word on legal disputes. She emphasized the deep respect that the Supreme Court justices maintain for each other, even when they take differing views on a case.
A native of the Bronx in New York City, Sotomayor is the Supreme Court’s 111th justice and its third woman. She also is the Court’s first Hispanic justice, something Sotomayor said has helped people of color feel “a sense of belonging” regarding the Court. She said her decisions, however, are not influenced by her heritage or her gender. “I am a justice, committed to the rule of law.”
Law School Dean Michael Schill introduced Sotomayor and said the school was honored by her visit. “It’s always a thrill when our community can get together for an important speaker, especially when that speaker is a Supreme Court Justice,” Schill said.
Prior to Sotomayor’s appointment to the Supreme Court, she served for 11 years on the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. She replaced justice David Souter on the bench as the only current Justice with trial judge experience.
The 90-minute program began with conversation between Sotomayor and David Strauss, the Gerald Ratner Distinguished Service Professor of Law, a leading constitutional law scholar and an editor of the Supreme Court Review, along with professors Geoffrey Stone and Dennis Hutchinson.
“Justice Sotomayor is an inspiration, not just to lawyers but to everyone,” said Strauss, who has argued 18 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. “She has had a remarkable and distinguished legal career as a prosecutor, a lawyer in private practice, and a judge at every level of the federal court system. And as President Obama said when he appointed her, she has ‘not only the knowledge and experience acquired over a course of a brilliant legal career, but the wisdom accumulated from an inspiring life's journey.’”
Sotomayor spoke of that journey, recalling her early years as an assistant district attorney in New York. “I adored being a prosecutor,” she said. “It’s work that gets your heart racing.” She later joined a private law firm, rising to partner in 1988. Inspired as a young person by the television show Perry Mason, Sotomayor harbored a dream of public service. President George H.W. Bush nominated her in 1991 to become federal district judge in the Southern District of New York.
Her first day on the bench as a district court judge was harrowing, she said Monday.
“My knees were knocking,” Justice Sotomayor said. “I was convinced the whole courtroom could hear them.” But she had found her home, she said, and remarked to a friend at the time, “this fish has found her pond.”
In 1997, President Bill Clinton nominated her to become a judge on the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York.
On a personal level, Sotomayor said that joining the Supreme Court brings more scrutiny than most judges are used to. She said she missed being “a little anonymous,” well aware that she can no longer leave her house in sweats to grab a coffee from across the street.
She said her transition to the nation’s top court was easier thanks to a piece of advice from former Justice David Souter. He told her he’d realized over time that his colleagues were all people of good faith, despite their ideological differences.
“There is no ill will,” said Sotomayor about working with the other eight justices. This realization “made disagreeing with my colleagues not so bad. We respect each other.”
The program included an hour of questions from law students. One student asked Sotomayor for any advice she wishes she’d heard while she was in law school.
“The greatest asset you have as an attorney is your integrity,” Sotomayor replied. “If you cross [the line], it will be remembered for the rest of your career.”
She also advised students never to take on more work than they can accomplish well.
“The worst impression you can leave as an attorney is to not get a job done,” she said.