If this blog post were a movie, the opening scene would be the end of the evening—roaring applause and a standing ovation with Justice Sotomayor shaking hands, hugging kids at the end of the aisle, and walking through the crowd at Gammage Auditorium.
Now, rewind back…
Last night, U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor and the Honorable Mary M. Schroeder, Chief Judge Emeritus, Senior Circuit Judge, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, spoke to a packed house at ASU Gammage Auditorium for the 18th Annual John P. Frank Memorial Lecture. Every time I cover events like this, such as when the late Justice Scalia was in Phoenix in mid-2015, I expect to hear more about the law, legal process, and the Constitution—but I always walk away with a great respect for how much depth and perspective the justices bring to the profession beyond their legal background. Their passions and the richness of their diversity always shine through and you can feel it in the crowd.
Since she covered many topics, I thought I would give you some highlights from the conversation with Justice Sotomayor.
Justice Sotomayor On:
Being a Justice – No one is born a justice, she shared. You grow into the role. Many times, we believe our flaws are things we cannot help, but the reality is you have to work at everything. While she concedes she would never have been a great musician, she talked about how her continuous work (as a student and beyond) to improve her public speaking and legal writing skills got her to where she is now.
“Even as a justice, when I don’t know something, I ask.”
Confirmation Hearings – In her opinion, they are a “useless enterprise.” What the public expects of the hearings is “something no self-respecting nominee should do.” Justice Sotomayor explained that the public wants to know how a judge is going to vote with regards to important issues; however, a judge never truly studies a legal issue until the judge has lawyers arguing a case before him/her. The adversarial process results in both sides presenting the best argument they can to the court. Instead of inquiring into how the future justice may vote, she suggests we should find out about their values, who they help, what experience they bring to the bench, how they treat others, and whether that judge has ever ruled in a way contrary to their own personal opinions—following the rule of law. Ask yourself, “Is this a person worthy of judging a human being?”
“There is no excuse for nominating someone who is mean to other people.”
What Her Travels Have Taught Her – Through her many travels, Justice Sotomayor has seen that every community tied to this country loves it. While we all share the love of America, she believes that many people do not have a full understanding of what makes America great—our system of government and respecting the power and limitations of our Constitution. She emphasized the importance that everyone in the country votes to ensure we are not just living in the United States but that we are acting as citizens of the United States.
“We love our country. I am above all an American – with a Latina heart.”
Women in the Law – When asked about the data that shows that women are not rising to leadership positions in firms at a proportional rate to women who are entering the workforce, Justice Sotomayor had great insight from her work early in her career in the DA’s office. She said partners elevated and promoted others who looked like them and argued like them, and that still continues in many workplaces. The “hardest part is to recognize that people not like you can succeed too.” She offered some advice for women—in particular, for those who are soft-spoken: it is essential to command a room, even if that means learning how to transmit a whisper. Also, women have to become rainmakers—pay more attention to getting clients and do it in your own style. She explained that her method was expanding the already-existing firm clients with new and additional work to serve their needs.
“All of these men had been prosecutors—they had an image of what a successful prosecutor was—it was them.”
Helpful Advice She Received – Justice Souter told Justice Sotomayor that it took him a long time not to be angry when his colleagues disagreed with him. “I couldn’t understand why they couldn’t see reason,” he told her. What ultimately makes it possible to be colleagues who are fond of each other and disagree is they respect each other’s passions and even—at times—form unexpected alliances. “We fundamentally know, appreciate and understand that every one of us loves this country, our Constitution, and our system of government with all our hearts.”
“We are people of goodwill and, if you can respect that, you can live with each other.”
Her Advice to Youth of Color – Justice Sotomayor relayed the story of when Vice President Biden went and gave her a hug when her confirmation hearings were difficult and reminded her that you measure the character of a person not by the number of times they have been knocked down, but by the number of times they have gotten up. She shared that she always gets up and, sometimes, it is with the help of her friends. She also offered great remarks about the importance of diversity through a story about how not everyone who gets perfect scores is admitted to Princeton. People with perfect scores are turned down in favor of a class that is diverse in their background and passions. The applications show promise in some way and, importantly, not the same way as one another. It is more about what you do when you are there, what you give back, what you take from it, and what you give to the world.
“Don’t give up.”
As I walked to my car in the light rain (which is somehow not too unusual for this past month in Arizona), I heard a woman in the crowd talking about how Justice Sotomayor opened her mind. I thought the same thing as we crossed paths and the next person standing by me said the same thing and talked about how he began thinking differently about issues. I find it to be quite amazing that just one “conversation” with a person can be so transformative.
Last, I have to add that this event was hosted by the School of Justice and Social Inquiry at ASU. One thing that most readers of this blog, colleagues, and friends know is that I absolutely loved every minute I spent at Arizona State. It is a large, research university that also feels like a small community within your individual college. One thing that struck me last night was the recitation of ASU’s charter. I have never heard another organization say its mission or vision and then hear a large crowd erupt in applause. The dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Patrick Kenney, shared “Arizona State University is a comprehensive public research university, measured not by whom we exclude, but rather whom we include and how they succeed…”. ASU’s charter, he suggested, compares to the Supreme Court’s mission of protecting disadvantaged groups over the legislative majority, which is why Justice Sotomayor’s work is so critical to the values that ASU holds dear.