Justice at Emory Law

US Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor visits the Emory Law community

She left the dais, preferring the proximity to audience members, and succeeded in turning the imposing grandeur of Glenn Memorial Auditorium into a living room. It is rare for any speaker to be that personable — to say nothing of an associate justice of the US Supreme Court being nervously watched by security personnel. But that, in a nutshell, is Sonia Sotomayor.

Nominated to the Supreme Court by President Obama in 2009, Sotomayor was previously nominated by President George W. Bush to the US District Court, Southern District of New York, in 1991, serving in that role from 1992 to 1998. She was a judge on the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit from 1998 to 2009.

During the justice’s February 6 visit, Emory Law Interim Dean James B. Hughes Jr. and Emory President Claire E. Sterk offered welcome messages, with the president expressing confidence that Sotomayor would help us “understand why the rule of law is more important now than it ever has been.” She continued, “It is safe to say that many, if not all, of us will remember this day for some time to come. You are challenging us to step back and think about what we do and how and why we do it.”

The “us” to which the president referred was a distinguished body, consisting of the following sectors of the legal community: members of the state and federal judiciary in Georgia; judges from the US Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit; representatives from the US District, Magistrate, and Bankruptcy courts for the Northern, Middle, and Southern districts of Georgia; the Court of Appeals for the state of Georgia; and the State Court of DeKalb County.

Stephanie Angel, president of the Latin American Law Student Association and a beneficiary of the Sonia and Celina Sotomayor Judicial Internship Program, introduced the justice and thanked her by noting, “As a Latina law student, I don’t often find myself in a room with peers, faculty, or attorneys who look like me. Justice Sotomayor serves as a proximate living example of what someone who looks like us can become.”

Emory Law Professor Fred Smith Jr., a scholar of constitutional law and the federal judiciary who clerked for Sotomayor during the October 2013 term, conducted the Q&A. He started by quoting the man he called “Atlanta’s favorite son,” Martin Luther King Jr., who said, “Faith is taking the first step even when you can’t see the whole staircase.”

“Your remarkable life includes so many moments like that,” Smith said, as he asked Sotomayor to lead the audience through her first day at the Supreme Court. “As you walked up the steps,” he wondered, “what was on your mind?”

She drew a big laugh by noting that she didn’t take the steps; she drove into the garage. There was no Rocky moment climbing the famous steps of the Supreme Court Building, and indeed, as she continued, the day proved to be an unsettling combination of the common and the unforgettable.

Sotomayor was led to a makeshift office, given that the Supreme Court Building was under renovation. There were welcoming notes from several of the justices as well as Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s chambers manual, which Sotomayor explained by saying, “A chambers manual is the private creation of each judge. It is a description of how their chambers work and why. For someone to share that is an act of grace and love.”

Returning from the gym some hours later, she found Justice John Paul Stevens in her office — the court’s oldest member. “Justice Stevens, I would come to you,” the newcomer humbly said. “No,” he responded. “You are arriving; I come to you. And call me John from now on.” (She couldn’t. Not yet.)

Feeling a bit like Alice after her fall through the rabbit hole, Sotomayor then heard a female voice — that of Sandra Day O’Connor, the second most senior justice at the time.

The advice of both justices to Sotomayor was “be decisive. The responsibility of a judge is to decide.”

“It felt like an out-of-body experience,” she recalled. “All I could think was, ‘What am I doing here? They made a mistake.’ ”

She spent the remainder of that extraordinary day physically orienting herself, given that mental equilibrium seemed out of reach. “I started in the laundry room. It seemed the most familiar room to me.” She also made sure to check out the clerk’s and recorder’s offices. 

“When I entered the courtroom for the first time to hear an argument,” she said, “the bigness of what I was involved in came crashing down. My first case gave me chills down my back. It was a little case, not very important—Citizens United.”

In retrospect, Sotomayor says that what was different for her, in becoming a Supreme Court justice, was “everything and nothing.” She recounted some of the expectations at each level of the judicial ladder: As a district judge, you seek justice for the parties before you. On the US Court of Appeals, you are being asked to determine the law as it applies to any party in your circuit.

“That is a very different focus from the Supreme Court,” she noted. “Every single case we take is on the edge of the law. We don’t take cases, generally, unless there is a circuit split. Judges generally tend to be reasonable people, but reasonable people disagree. And where reasonable people disagree, the cases are hard.”

The recipe for humble pie

By the end of her first term on the court, Sotomayor deliberately applied a pin to her own balloon. Hers was a big job that came with so much power. Acknowledging that lawyers sometimes believe they are right because they get the last word, she concluded, “All of these things are dangerous. They can give you a greater sense of self than anyone is entitled to have.”

To serve herself a slice of humble pie, Sotomayor wrote a memoir, My Beloved World, which helped her recalibrate. First, she needed to find her anchor. “I didn’t want to lose Sonia,” she said. “Not that she was great, but something got me to where I was.”

And the book’s second goal? To thank others, to debunk the myth of being self-made. “My book was to remember when people had stepped forward to help me, to honor people who were so critical in my life, like my grandmother and mother. And I have advised associates, when I start putting on too many airs, the book is relatively thick; hit me with it.”

Real and relatable

The memoir is remarkable on many levels, but perhaps its primary takeaway is its clear-eyed view of Sotomayor’s outsider status. As she said in a lecture delivered at the University of California–Berkeley School of Law in 2001, “Each day on the bench I learn something new about the judicial process and about being a professional Latina woman in a world that sometimes looks at me with suspicion.”

Yes, an outsider — despite graduating summa cum laude from Princeton, despite a JD from Yale, despite being editor of the Yale Law Journal. Despite every hard-won accomplishment.

A kid from the South Bronx, Sotomayor grew up surrounded by the few trees of her project, its dirt and broken glass, and her mother’s admonition that she not go out after dark. She left there for Princeton and its “streams and grass.” She felt “like an alien” hearing classmates recount trips to Europe; her travel consisted of visits with relatives in Puerto Rico and Camden, New Jersey.

“I spent my four years feeling like I didn’t belong, but I wanted to open the door to opportunity for others,” she recalled. And she did pry open that door, working with university officials to spur the hire of the first Latino administrator.

A January 2010 piece in the New Yorker, titled “Number Nine,” captures the common-woman quality of Sotomayor: “When President Obama announced her nomination, it was clear that Sotomayor . . . would be a different kind of justice, someone a little more connected, as the White House kept reminding everyone, with ‘the real world.’ . . . She cut a relatable figure. The Bronx congressman Jose Serrano said that, after her nomination, ‘people on the street would come running up to me and talk about “Sonia,” like she’s their cousin, or their niece.’ ”

Her job(s)

In 2014, Fox News Politics published a  five-year retrospective on Sotomayor’s rulings on the court. The “defining moment” is thought to be her 2014 dissent of the 6-2 ruling upholding a ban on affirmative action practices in admission to public universities in Michigan (Schuettte v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action).

She has passions and projects beyond her work on the court as well. Devilishly revealing that “I am really good at taking people’s ideas, if they are good ideas,” Sotomayor followed up on something that Justice Breyer raised with her — namely, that the best place to do judicial studies for Latin American and Caribbean countries would be Puerto Rico. She “went out and beat the bushes,” and the Judicial Studies Institute (JSI) resulted. 

Managed by the US Department of Justice in coordination with the University of Puerto Rico and Inter-American University law schools, JSI helps Latin American partner nations transition from inquisitorial to accusatory systems of justice. Some 14 countries are now involved, and hundreds of judges have been trained. Sotomayor does ethics training there once a year.

Another idea she stood up on its hindlegs came from Justice O’Connor. The endeavor is called iCivics, and after debuting in 2009, it has become the largest provider of civics curriculum in the nation. Sotomayor is proud of its focus on ESL kids with reading and language problems. Through games, students step into any role — a judge, a member of Congress, even the president of the United States — and do that job.

What “Drew” her to the law

An early fan of Nancy Drew mystery novels (which she says are “still scattered all over my office”), Sotomayor thought a career as a detective might be within her reach. However, while trying to manage juvenile diabetes, she recalls that her clinic gave her a list of occupations that she “could and couldn’t do” as a diabetic. On the list of things to avoid was law enforcement. However, on the can-do list was lawyer. “In the neighborhood where I grew up,” Sotomayor observed,“there were no judges or lawyers; there were police officers.” Nonetheless, the idea grew on her and, she says, “gave me hope that I could do something that seemed exciting.” 

The crux of the law, she asserts, is “about helping people,” with the role of lawyers and judges being to help us navigate, if not improve upon, our relationships with one another. Take stop lights, for instance. We don’t crave sitting at them, but we recognize that by observing this traffic law, more people get where they are going safely. “Of course it gets more complex from there,” she said. “But all of it is part of the law’s beauty. Laws are made by people, for themselves. As citizens, we have an obligation to be part of these conversations.”

Student voices

Emory Law students had the chance to join the Q&A with Sotomayor, and one asked, “As a Hispanic justice, how important is diversity in the legal arena and in the Supreme Court?” She affirmed its importance, noting, “There is a simple truth. If you walk into a system and you don’t see anyone who looks like you, it undermines confidence in that system.” She was realistic about how far the Supreme Court could come, though, remarking that “there are only nine of us, and we are never going to fully represent the populace.”

Even as gender, ethnic, and racial diversity on the highest court has improved over time, breadth of life experience has not. For instance, all of the justices still hail from Ivy League schools, and their faith traditions remain narrow. Moreover, she was candid about other pockets of inexperience, noting that Justice Kennedy was the only one who had done a modicum of criminal defense work. “You have a lot of prosecutors and not one person on the other side,” she said. The same is true with regard to understanding issues of state law such as marriage and child custody. The justices also have no depth in immigration or environmental law. “We have richer, broader conversations when you have people with different experiences participating,” she concluded.

Another student asked, “When your colleagues criticize your opinions, how do you avoid taking it personally?” Sotomayor playfully shot back, “Oh, you do take it personally. Most of the time it’s because they are dissenting, and they lost. There are a number of my colleagues who have written dissents where I could have strangled them. But I need their vote for the next case. You have to be practical.” She did acknowledge, on a more serious note, that to be a dissenter criticized by the majority is hard. But she used the moment to argue for keeping our minds open to one another. “In either-or discussions,” she warned, “that vast expanse in the middle is lost.

You and you

As the hour with her neared its close, it was obvious that no one wanted to stir. She held the room, not just through her intelligence and humor but even more for her humility. Despite her position at the top of life’s ladder, she remains that underdog — the sick kid from the South Bronx. Even today, as the object of so much admiration, a full sense of belonging still eludes her. But that’s okay. As she says, “I may not belong 100 percent, but I’m there.” She laughs at some ways she is out of step. Her fellow justices adore opera; she likes jazz.

Her eyes, and heart, are trained on fellow outsiders. She moves through life putting down the stakes of a big tent. In the course of this conversation, she left the stage to embrace Professor Smith’s parents. She greeted people she knew and people she didn’t. She took time to explain the concept of triple hearsay to two young Latina girls in the audience.

“We are here for a reason, every one of us, to make a contribution to bettering the world. But you have to have the heart to do it, and the energy and desire to leave a legacy,” she said. She then made a point of turning to the girls and making this prediction: “You and you,” she said, touching them lightly on their shoulders, “are going to do better things than me.”