By Michael Ortiz & Jill Leavey
Editor-in-chief / Assistant News Editor
Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor had an intimate conversation with Hofstra’s law students about how she made it from the Bronx to the bench, at a closed event in the Helene Fortunoff Theater on Monday, Oct. 16.
The event began with a short sit-down interview orchestrated by the dean of the Maurice A. Deane School of Law, A. Gail Prudenti; however, it quickly became more personal as Sotomayor began taking questions from students, walking to them for a photo and shaking hands on the way.
She touched on many different areas in a short hour, from what motivates her to how she perceives fellow justices on the court. “My colleagues – every one of them – is as passionate as I am about the work we do. We all love the country,” she said. “I disagree fiercely with some of them – there isn’t one justice who doesn’t love the United States of America, our Constitution, our system of justice any less than I do. In fact, that passion drives some of the fiery dissents that we throw at one another.”
Law students entered into a lottery to go to the event. Those with questions entered into another lottery that was narrowed down by the law school and further by Sotomayor’s team.
Danielle Leavy, a second year law student, asked the first of the students’ questions. “I’m from Long Island, I don’t have any lawyers or any kind of law background in my family and being a woman, I do feel that connection with her,” she said.
Some of Sotomayor’s more pointed statements came on the topics of racism and immigration.
“There are views surrounding sensitive issues like racism where people can feel very personally attacked. But in most instances, a lot of expressed views are born in fear of people’s insecurity about what things mean to them,” Sotomayor said. “Immigration is a highly contentious issue in our society. I’m often asked my position and my response is always ‘this is not my issue as a justice. This is our issue as a society, as a part of America.’”
As the first of his siblings to graduate high school, Henderson Huihui, a first year student of law, asked Sotomayor about her ability to thrive when she was raised in a situation that was not advantageous to the career she pursued. “I just felt kind of disadvantaged hearing some of my peers saying they have relatives that are lawyers and relatives that are working in other professional fields and I just felt disadvantaged in that way,” Huihui said.
Sotomayor responded by discerning the difference between stupidity and ignorance. “Stupid is the lack of capacity to understand, ignorance is the lack of exposure to know. Most of us are ignorant about things we don’t know. But lots of us are ashamed of admitting ignorance because we confuse it with stupidity,” Sotomayor said.
Huihui, who grew up in Waimanalo on O’ahu in Hawaii, said he felt he could relate to Sotomayor’s motivation to succeed. “I’ll just always remember to remember who I am and not to be ashamed of my upbringing and who I am as a person,” he said.
In a rare moment of self-doubt, Sotomayor reconsidered accepting President Barack Obama’s nomination to the Supreme Court in 2009. Looking for advice, Sotomayor turned to a friend who reminded her that becoming the first Latina and third female justice, is bigger than her. “This is not about you. This is about you reaching a position that is important for other people to look up to. I have hope about my daughter and other little girls looking there and saying ‘I can do that too,’” Sotomayor said, recalling her friend’s advice.
For many students, especially female law students looking to pursue a career in a male-dominated field, the opportunity was surreal. Sotomayor was unapologetic in describing who she is and where she is from. “I’m the first person to go to law school in my family, so I especially like what she said about ‘fit in, don’t lose yourself,’ because where you come from is so important and it does impact you the most as a person,” said Elizabeth Barecin, a first year law student.
Sotomayor explained how a judge’s life experience inevitably has an effect on their decisions.
She specifically spoke of Safford Unified School District v. Redding, a case involving a public school strip searching a student after she took an aspirin, which was not permitted under the school’s anti-drug policy. The parents of the student sued, citing wrongful search and seizure.
Sotomayor was not on the bench when the court heard this case. But she said the male justices could not fully understand the young girl’s grievance. “I know how horrifying it would have been for me at 13 to undress before an adult that I didn’t give permission, to have that adult touch me. It would have been life scarring,” she said.
She further explained how the balance of the court allowed for an opinion free of potentially damaging language. “Whether it’s the words you use, the analogies you make, the sentiments you convey, we as a collective group of justices help each other avoid unnecessary classification, analogy, sentiments that are not necessary to the opinion or to its outcome,” Sotomayor said.
The justice’s candid discussion inspired law students to reflect and embrace their perceived weaknesses as strengths. “As far as being a minority woman, being a Muslim-Bengali woman from Queens, I definitely understand the magnitude of a lot of what she was saying. The sense of belonging, you sometimes don’t feel, the difference between ignorance and stupidity really spoke a lot to me,” said Mehrin Bakht, a second year law student.
At the conclusion of the event, Prudenti presented Sotomayor with a customized baseball jersey with Hofstra on the front, and ‘Sotomayor 99’ on the back – a nod to her being the 99th associate justice of the Supreme Court.
President Stuart Rabinowitz said, “For the students to hear a justice be so personal and honest and down to earth and forthright – and give them personal advice on their legal careers – is priceless.”
Sotomayor received an honorary law degree from Hofstra in 2006, three years before being nominated to the Supreme Court.