U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor: Looking to connect personally with audience members, Justice Sotomayor moved through the crowd of Brown students and local community members as she took questions. All Photos: Nicholas Dentamaro / Brown University

Date February 7, 2018
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Sonia Sotomayor: Lessons on life and on law

In a February visit to Brown, the U.S. Supreme Court justice engaged with students on a wide range of topics, offering an up-close look at her life and career.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Lessons from a childhood marked by illness and material poverty. Support and mentorship for first-generation college students. The challenges that young women face today.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s journey from a Bronx housing project to her appointment as the first Hispanic and third woman on the nation’s highest court has equipped her with an unrivaled perspective on a wide range of issues.

Speaking before a crowd of approximately 2,000 at Brown University on Wednesday, Feb. 7, Sotomayor shared that perspective generously.

So much so that what began as an on-stage conversation moderated by Brown President Christina Paxson soon spilled into the audience, much to the delight of attendees. Sotomayor strolled among the crowd, engaging with students who asked her everything from whether law school is worth the cost to how to function in a polarized society when even essential facts are up for debate.

Her advice on the latter question? To listen strategically and to focus on the principles driving the discussion.

“There are often not different facts,” Sotomayor said, stressing the need to understand what is motivating someone’s approach to debate. “If you listen to what that guiding principle is, what it is that’s so important to them… that’s the beginning of compromise. That’s the beginning of serious conversation. That’s where you can say, this is important to you, that’s important to her, and where in the middle can we come out?”

Sotomayor’s visit to Brown came 18 months after the University’s incoming Class of 2020 students explored her story through her memoir. “My Beloved World” served as the text for the University’s First Readings program, which invites new students and other Brown community members to read and share ideas on a common text.

“I just remember your book as being a marvelous jumping-off point for any new college student,” Paxson said. “This book and your visit has now forged this indelible connection between you and Brown.”

AnaSofia Velazquez Lopez, a Class of 2020 student who shares Sotomayor’s Puerto Rican roots, introduced the justice. She said she was grateful for Sotomayor’s advice “to remember where we came from, how this shapes us and that despite the distance, your identity will always be a part of you.”

She also said that Sotomayor inspired her and her Class of 2020 peers to consider their undergraduate years as greater than just an academic experience.

“It’s about recognizing that your passions may change and that sometimes you just have to let your curiosity take charge,” Velazquez Lopez said. “And it’s about questioning your assumptions, even if it means defying standards.”

In responding to a question from Paxson, Sotomayor spoke about the impact of her childhood on her professional life. One experience in particular was formative in developing a sense of proportionality that served her as a lawyer and as a judge.

As a young girl with diabetes, upset that she had to sit out a game because her blood sugar level had dropped, Sotomayor said, she noticed that sitting next to her was a cousin whose arm had been broken at birth and had never grown to functionality. Unlike Sotomayor, that cousin could never join the others in play.

“Just at that moment I realized that as sorry as I felt for myself, there was always something worse, that someone would be dealing with something that was more serious and more life-impacting than my condition,” she said. “And I truly believe that that moment is what guided me to looking at my life as a whole.”

That sense of proportionality emerged both through her condition and through her experiences in courtrooms, Sotomayor said. She said she kept proportion in mind on the bench, aware of what she described as “the vagrancy and the wideness of human behavior” and the need to “measure punishment and your response accordingly.”

Fielding a student question about what changes to the current legal system are necessary for improving civil rights, Sotomayor identified the need to reduce legal costs and strengthen representation for criminal defendants.

“We need to ensure that the outcome of your case in court is not dependent on the quality of your lawyer,” she said. “To be able to say that we have equal justice for all, we have to find a way to equalize the resources we have for everyone, rich and poor. When a legal system breaks down, as it has in many countries, people start disrespecting the system. We have to invest resources, take care of the needy, not just in criminal cases but in civil law as well.”

Often during the event, Sotomayor’s responses landed at the intersection of the law and her personal life.

Asked if she brought a Latina perspective to the Supreme Court, Sotomayor asked, “What is a Latina perspective?” noting that Latinos come from different economic backgrounds, have different religious traditions and life experiences.

“What you got is Sonia Sotomayor,” she said. “What Sonia Sotomayor is is not just a Latina.”

She then ran down a list of descriptors that applied to her: “Nuyorican, Catholic, raised by a single mom, with an annoying younger brother,” to Ivy League, former prosecutor, former corporate defender for Fortune 500 companies, district court judge and person.

“I am an amalgam,” Sotomayor said.

Brown senior Melissa Cairo asked whether the value of attending law school today equals what it was when Sotomayor earned her law degree from Yale University.

“I love the law,” she said. “I went into it because I had a passion about what law does for people... Go to law school if that’s what you want. Costs be damned. You pay a mortgage for the rest of your life so you have a place to live. If you pay a mortgage on your education, you’ve kept the value of it.”

Asked for words of encouragement for first-generation or low-income college students whose belonging at selective universities may be questioned, Sotomayor said, “I’m arrogant, I really am. I try to be humble, but nothing can upset me more than for someone to say I’m in a place because of affirmative action.”

She cited the hard work undertaken by herself and those who, like her, did not have the advantages of a top-notch education or the guidance of parents who understood the markers and pathway to success.

Sotomayor’s advice about working harder and achieving even greater success than others despite few privileges struck a chord for Brown undergraduate Ethan Morelion.

Morelion, one student among a group of Class of 2020 students who attended a private reception with Sotomayor on the eve of her public conversation, said that as a low-income, Hispanic and first-generation college student, reading Sotomayor’s book felt like his own story was being told.

“I felt that I had someone who showed me that it is possible to overcome these hardships despite the obstacles having these identities poses,” Morelion said. “As an aspiring lawyer, it meant even more for me to meet someone who showed me that it is possible to overcome these troubles and be able to achieve my dreams.”

Isabella Saker, a public policy concentrator who also attended the reception, was equally inspired.

“With very few leaders in the American policy system who are both female and Latina, Sonia Sotomayor stands as a strong role model to me.”

In meeting Sotomayor at the reception, Saker said, it became clear that “any of us can accomplish what she has in her life so long as we work at what we are passionate about.”