This past Wednesday afternoon, Brown students filed into the Pizzitola Sports Center to hear Sonia Sotomayor, Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court, speak about her life and address current issues. After first taking questions from University President Christina Paxson, Sotomayor quickly left the stage and walked into the crowd to answer questions from students. Towards the middle of the question portion, a student asked how Sotomayor has brought a Latina perspective to the Supreme Court. She responded with a question of her own: “What is a Latina perspective?” She pointed out that Latin@s have different economic backgrounds, genders, and jobs, and that they eat different foods and speak different languages. She went on to say that yes, being Latina influences her, but not in ways she can quantify. “I can’t pick out one piece of me and say that affected my decision-making in a particular way,” she said. She emphasized that her Catholic upbringing, her experience growing up in a single parent home with “an annoying younger brother,” and her Ivy League education all contributed to her unique perspective on the law and the United States more broadly. “There’s no one perspective,” she said. “What you’ve got is Sonia Sotomayor.”
Before her rise to America’s highest court, Sotomayor attended Catholic High School in the Bronx, New York, where she lived in a housing project with her mother and brother. She then went to Princeton University, where she became the first person in her family to attend college. After graduating, Sotomayor gained admission to Yale Law School, graduating in 1979. She had a long career as an assistant district attorney before going into private practice. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush nominated her to serve as a federal judge for the Southern District of New York. In 1997, she was appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, and in 2009, the Senate confirmed her to replace David Souter as an Associate Justice on the Supreme Court.
Sotomayor began Wednesday’s conversation by speaking about the lessons she learned in childhood that remain with her today. Diagnosed with diabetes as a young girl, she was prone to experiencing drops in her sugar levels. Once when this happened, her mother made her sit out a game for longer than Sotomayor thought necessary, and initially, Sotomayor was furious. Then it occurred to her that the cousin she was sitting next to, whose arm had been broken since birth, didn’t ever get to join in.
“I realized that as sorry as I felt for myself, there was always something worse,” Sotomayor said. That moment was a turning point, and the sense of perspective she gained that day has informed her decisions as a lawyer, a judge, and a person ever since, she said.
Later on, in the Q&A portion of the event, students asked Sotomayor questions about everything from how the Supreme Court will deal with new technology (answer: slowly and carefully) to whether law school is worth its rising costs (“If you love the law, cost be damned,” replied Sotomayor). One student sought advice on pursuing truth in an era of misinformation and “fake news.” Sotomayor responded that often, when people argue over different, conflicting “facts,” the disagreement is actually about the different principles motivating the discussion. Therefore, she said, you must acknowledge the different values at play and think about whether you can meet your opponent in the middle.
When asked how Brown can “do better by [its] first generation students,” Sotomayor emphasized the importance of general support and informed advising, in terms of both the academic and extracurricular aspects of college. She also highlighted the need for mentors who can teach writing skills, especially in the case of students for whom English is a second language.
On the changes necessary to improve the current legal system, Sotomayor said we must reduce the cost of legal services. “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,” she said.
One particularly powerful question was asked by a woman seeking advice for minority students who have to deal with the assumption that they owe their college acceptances to affirmative action. Sotomayor answered with solidarity and pride. Addressing an imaginary accuser, she said, “Probably. But I’ve done more than you have. I’m more deserving than you.”
So, when what you’ve got is Sonia Sotomayor, what exactly have you got? Well, it’s no simple question. You’ve got a Nuyorican, a Catholic, a woman raised by a single mom, and a diabetic. You’ve got a two-time Ivy League student who was also a first-generation college student; you’ve got a prosecutor, a corporate defender, and a district court judge. On Wednesday, we also got someone who, in a surprisingly personal gesture, hugged AnaSofia Velasquez Lopez ‘20, the Puerto Rican student who introduced her, and called her introduction the “most moving” she’d ever had. We got someone charismatic and funny who weaved through the crowd while answering questions and posed for dozens of pictures with students, smiling and cracking jokes along the way. We got someone bold who ended the event by pitching iCivics.org, a website that teaches civics to middle schoolers, and betting Brown University students that they wouldn’t beat a single one of its civics-related games on the first try. We got someone who reminded her listeners to keep fighting for gender equality and who told the crowd that the most important job anyone has is being a citizen — not in the formal sense of having a passport, but by participating in the community you’re a part of.
On Wednesday, Sotomayor gave us a glimpse into a few of her different perspectives, as well as some invaluable wisdom and advice.
Brown University gave her a Brown hat, a Brown sweatshirt, and a standing ovation.