By Susan Gluss
If student reaction is any gauge, Sonia Sotomayor is more than a role model for aspiring lawyers; she’s a revered symbol of what’s possible. The scrappy lawyer turned U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice visited UC Berkeley on March 9 to share her thoughts about the role of the judiciary and the importance of living a just life.
Justice Sotomayor met with law students and faculty before joining Interim Dean Melissa Murray for a conversation on stage at Zellerbach Hall. The two developed a close friendship when Murray clerked for Sotomayor on the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals.
The sold-out campus event was co-sponsored by Berkeley Law and the UC Berkeley Division of Equity and Inclusion. In her introduction, Vice Chancellor Na’ilah Nasir described Murray and Sotomayor as “powerhouse women.” When the two walked out on stage, the crowd erupted in deafening applause.
The justice, clearly moved, said, “You have no idea how overwhelming this is.”
Justice Sotomayor has served on the Supreme Court since 2009. The court’s first justice of Hispanic heritage and third female member, she chronicled her remarkable rise from a Bronx, New York housing project in her memoir, My Beloved World.
During her conversation with the dean and her interaction with students, Sotomayor’s passionate commitment to the rule of law was evident.
She reminded the audience that she couldn’t address issues facing the court, needing to remain “sufficiently neutral.” But in reality, she said judges read the papers, follow the news and are “engaged in the world.”
“No justice is nonpolitical. We’re political with a Big P or small p,” she said, adding that it’s important for judges to be attentive and to keep an open mind.
After chatting on stage for a half-hour, the justice walked through the audience, answering mostly pre-selected questions from law students. As she walked up and down the aisles, there was a visceral reaction from the crowd; students reached out their hands to grasp Justice Sotomayor’s, and she gladly clasped back, adding a hug or two.
On the court
Berkeley Law student Hai Huang ’18 asked the justice how different the court is now with just eight members, following Antonin Scalia’s death last year.
“There’s an appreciable difference between eight and nine … a palpable change,” she said. “At conference, we are talking more. … We are trying to reach consensus more.” But, she said, compromise isn’t always good if it avoids a big issue. “It means the issue is still divided across the country,” and left unsettled.
Alfredo Diaz ’18 asked what the judicial oath to “do equal right to the poor and to the rich,” meant to her.
In practice, the justice said it means “the most important focus is on the person before me, not on their background, not on their color, not on their religion, not on anything other than as a human being with a problem, and one that they’re asking me to help solve for them.”
But does the judicial system succeed in honoring the rich and the poor? “Not that well,” Sotomayor said. “We still don’t have enough lawyers in a position to do public interest work. … What some states pay the legal defenders who are representing criminal defendants is almost criminal itself. For some of them, it’s barely above minimum wage. All of this is troubling, deeply troubling for me.”
When asked by Travis Mitchell ’19 about the judiciary’s role in an increasingly polarized America, Justice Sotomayor let out a long, audible sigh.
“I am sad that the public has lost confidence in the judiciary. … That so many people believe we’re politicized is also saddening to me,” she said. It’s “not that the court has become politicized, but that the society has.”
“But that’s why I’m here,” she continued, “in the hopes that the audiences will walk away with more respect for the judiciary. … We’re human beings who care deeply about what we’re doing, and we’re trying as hard as we can. … Don’t give up hope on us.”
Words of advice
Earlier in the day, during a session with leaders of Berkeley Law’s Women of Color Collective, LaRaza Students Association, and the California Law Review, the justice offered words of advice and encouragement. “I understand how you feel,” she said, because “I’ve been in your shoes.” She said she never dreamed she’d serve on the Supreme Court—and “I still don’t quite believe it.”
Justice Sotomayor called on students to tackle the world’s tough legal challenges. “We depend on you,” she said, to make sure that the law serves the people. “Without your passion, without your drive, without your commitment, we can’t create that better world.” She also urged students to reach across the aisle.
“Difference is not innately bad,” she said. “You have to step outside your own community and embrace the larger world.”
Sotomayor wrote one of her most fiery dissents in 2014 against Michigan’s affirmative-action ban in hiring or college admissions. It was a prescient warning.
“The Constitution does not protect racial minorities from political defeat,” she wrote. “But neither does it give the majority free rein to erect selective barriers against racial minorities.”
The student leaders printed a copy of the epic dissent and asked Sotomayor to sign it. She signed, with relish.
This was Sotomayor’s second visit to Berkeley Law as a Supreme Court Justice; in 2011, she presided over the school’s McBaine Moot Court Honors Competition.