Justice Sonia Sotomayor appeared at the American Constitution Society’s national convention with her former high school classmate, Columbia law professor (and former director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund) Theodore M. Shaw. As the two friends reminisced about their time as students at Cardinal Spellman High School in the Bronx and a lifetime of overlapping legal careers, they emphasized the role of their shared background in shaping their experiences and viewpoints. “I really like people,” Sotomayor said, and so her attraction to the law stems from the framework it provides for human relations. She recalled the civil rights movement and how it helped her to realize what law meant for America. “I believe in liberty, the rule of law, and justice,” she continued, “I may be pretty naïve, but I do really believe in it.” For these values to flourish, both Sotomayor and Shaw emphasized, everyone must recognize the lifestyles, viewpoints, and feelings of others.

Evoking the debate over the role of empathy in judging that accompanied her nomination and confirmation, Sotomayor made clear that she did not believe that experience should trump the written law; instead, she emphasized, it aids in interpreting and understanding it properly. As an example, she cited the cellphone privacy cases, Riley v. California and United States v. Wurie, pending before the Court this Term, in which Chief Justice John Roberts expressed skepticism about why anyone would legitimately need to own two cellphones.  He did so, she noted, in a courtroom filled with government lawyers – many of whom have separate phones for work and personal use. Sotomayor described this as a simple example of why it is important to have people with different life experiences, so that misimpressions can be corrected.

Addressing the many law students and young lawyers in the room who might want to be judges themselves someday, Sotomayor advised them to “[r]emain true to yourself. You need to hope that you have developed values of integrity, of giving not taking, and as long as you keep those values in mind as you practice and as long as you see the legal profession as one of serving, helping, and giving to others, then really it does not matter if you become a Supreme Court justice or not. If you choose work you like, and do it well, then hopefully you will be noticed someday, but it is a lightning strike. I was fortunate to be hit by that lightning strike.”

That lightning strike, however, was not painless.  Shaw noted that he felt protective for his friend after she was nominated and began coming under attack.  Sotomayor acknowledged that “[i]t was tough in the very beginning. I had been content with my old life, and getting thrown into DC felt like getting hit with cold water. The transition into this new world was not easy – the public attention, the public deference, the way others stop treating you like a person.” She had recently seen a report about an overheard argument she had had with a friend about cooking chicken, and she joked, “Honestly, why should people care about chicken?”

It is true, we probably should not care that much about the chicken, but Sotomayor is still on the Supreme Court, and we are still fascinated. More information about the event can be found here.

Posted in Everything Else

Recommended Citation: Andrew Hamm, Justice Sotomayor speaks at ACS convention, SCOTUSblog (Jun. 24, 2014, 10:41 AM), http://www.scotusblog.com/2014/06/justice-sotomayor-speaks-at-acs-convention/