Associate U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor addressed the students at St. Francis College today before a lecture room packed with students and alumni.
Sotomayor’s appearance is part of the college’s Thomas J. Volpe Lecture Series, which included St. Francis alumni and former law clerk Sparkle Sooknanan conducting a public conversation with Sotomayer followed by a question and answer session with the justice.
Sotomayor, the first justice of Hispanic heritage, was born in Bronx to Puerto Rican parents on June 25, 1954. She earned a B.A. in 1976 from Princeton University, graduating summa cum laude and receiving the university’s highest academic honor. In 1979, she earned a J.D. from Yale Law School where she served as an editor of the Yale Law Journal.
She thereafter served as Assistant District Attorney in the New York County District Attorney’s Office from 1979–1984. She then litigated international commercial matters in New York City at Pavia & Harcourt, where she served as an associate and then partner from 1984–1992. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush nominated her to the U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, and she served in that role from 1992–1998. She then served as a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit from 1998–2009. President Barack Obama nominated her as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court on May 26, 2009, and she assumed this role August 8, 2009.
Sotomayor told the audience that she first wanted to be a judge, having been influenced by the episodes of Perry Mason that she watched as a girl. When asked why all three women currently serving on the Supreme Court – Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Brooklyn born and raised Ruth Bader Ginsburg – were New Yorkers women, she attributed the tenacious quality of New Yorkers to the passion held by judges on the bench, likening them to “bulldogs.”
She gave career advice to the students present at the engagement with her primary message being “Don’t despair.” She encouraged the students to find their career path via the process of elimination outlining her own journey that led her to the law which she described as being the result of logic, reason and persuasion. When asked what advice she would give to herself at a younger age, Sotomayor responded with “Don’t be so scared,” stating that the anxiety she felt about her choices early on were needless.
Sotomayor gave her personal take on gender disparity in the workplace. She stated that she did not think it was based on any conscious discrimination, but rather the tendency of those in power to hire and promote those that look like themselves. She gave personal examples of when she faced sexism throughout her own career and challenged the women present to take accountability by stating, “Those are expectations we still have to disprove.”
She also stated her faith in the jury system used in North America despite some pitfalls such as how it excludes some of the poorest members of society, provides a language barrier and sometimes fails at accessibility for disabled jurors. Sotomayor also cited the ingrained biases of judges and lawyers as potential flaws in the legal system. Of the jury system, Sotomayor said, “It sets us apart from every other nation in the world in a very positive way.”
When asked about the composition of the court in the future, Sotomayor stated that any changes to the court would not be drastic as the appointment is a lifelong one. She expressed a desire for justices with more diverse backgrounds in terms of professional experience citing Ginsberg as the only member with a background in civil law, and the lack of any justices with a background in other fields such as environmental law.
The event concluded with St. Francis College President Timothy J. Houlihan awarding Sotomayor an honorary doctorate of law.