U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor told a room full of law students Monday that diversity of opinions and perspectives make courts stronger and to always defend the legal profession.
She urged Albany Law students to listen and learn and to engage in challenging ethical dilemmas, but to never apologize for the work they intend to undertake – as long as they undertake that work full of passion.
“We should never be apologetic about the good we do for people and society, we should be proud of it,” she said. “And we should be passionate about the roles that lawyers play in helping society and people, and if we can show that passion and communicate it to people I think there would be less distrust of lawyers.”
She said she and her colleagues often approach the same legal question in fundamentally divergent ways and come up with radically different answers, though oftentimes they come to the same answers. But that is what moves the court, as a whole, closer to the right answer, she said.
“You want a bench where there is disagreement, because you want to ensure that the final answer is as right as we can get it after having heard as many voices as we have,” she said.
Serving on the Supreme Court, she said, turned out to be “much, much harder” than she had expected.
As a district court judge, she sweated and stressed over sentencing decisions – where the impact is “most vivid and present for a judge.” While on the circuit court, many decisions fell logically and neatly within previous precedent. But from time to time, a case would raise novel legal questions or the precedent didn’t fit as neatly as usual. Those were the cases that kept her up at night as a circuit judge.
On the Supreme Court?
“When you are on the Supreme Court all of the cases are like that,” Sotomayor said.
“So you’re not sleeping much,” joked Albany Law School Dean Alicia Ouellette.
She said she had not realized what it would be like to be a judge on the highest court in the land. Before joining the Supreme Court, she always had the comfort, if even only subconsciously, of knowing she wouldn’t necessarily have the final say in a matter. But there are no appeals at the Supreme Court.
“There is no court that fixes our mistakes,” she said.
As she answered questions from law students, posing for a picture with each one, Sotomayor roamed the large room, reaching out to greet as many of the people in attendance as she could. She told stories about her aunt stuffing napkins in her bag, napkins from a White House bathroom; she joked that some of the strongly-stated dissents of her “more colorful colleagues” had a hard time gaining support.
Sotomayor appeared to go out of her way to connect directly with as many people as possible at the event. She stopped by the overflow room on her way into the main event space, and she stayed long to answer more questions. She hugged a third-year student who graduated from the same Bronx high school as she did, Cardinal Spellman High School. And she told the female students to view their ability to sympathize with others as a strength, not a weakness.
She told the law students to always recognize and acknowledge someone else’s point of view, even if it runs counter to theirs or their understanding of the law. And she talked about the importance of building a coherent argument that is accessible to all people. She said she wants anyone to be able to read and understand her legal opinions.
“Most people don’t read our decisions,” she said. “But I want to make sure that anyone who picks up one of mine, if you take the legal notes out, you don’t need more than a fifth-grade education to follow what I’m saying.”
Sotomayor, who is also making stops at Sage and UAlbany while in the Capital Region on Tuesday, was awarded the Kate Stoneman Award at Albany Law. The award, named for the first woman admitted to the New York Bar in 1886, is given to people who demonstrate an ability seek change and advance opportunities for woman. Sotomayor, who grew up in the Bronx, said she was honored to receive the award.
“Kate Stoneman’s footsteps are ones I did follow in, but my footsteps are not ones I want you to follow,” she said. “I want you to make your own along with me.”