This March Justice Sonia Sotomayor spoke at Stanford University. Answering questions from the Law School Dean and students, Justice Sotomayor offered advice and told us about her life through her stories. While answering student questions, she wandered through the audience shaking hands and taking photos with the students without pausing. I came away thrilled by her accomplishments, lessons, wisdom and accessibility.
Asked about the value of education, Justice Sotomayor talked about her childhood, her education, and the value of reading. She grew up in a crime-ridden part of New York City. There was a movie made about her neighborhood: Fort Apache, The Bronx. She grew up speaking Spanish and didn’t learn English until she started school, so her first four years didn’t go well. Due to family problems, she retreated into reading, and she learned that through reading, she could visit places and times beyond her personal experience. When she started college at Princeton, she wasn’t as well prepared as most other students, so she had to work hard. Despite this, she did very well, graduating summa cum laude and earning a law degree at Yale. (Princeton and Yale are two of America’s top universities.)
Learning is incremental. Take step. If that doesn’t work, then take a baby step.
She was appointed three levels of courts, culminating with the US Supreme Court. The first appointment was made by President George Bush, a Republican. The subsequent appointments were made by Presidents Clinton and Obama. The final appointment was to the US Supreme Court.
Asked how to change someone else’s viewpoint, Sotomayor said to understand the other viewpoint, what’s important to them.
As a Hispanic woman, Justice Sotomayor has encountered discrimination. How she responds depends on the person, whether they did this intentionaly, and whether they would hurt other people if she did nothing. When parking her car in the employee parking lot, a guard said “Honey, you can’t park your car there.” Figuring that the guard wasn’t mean-spirited, she responded that he should be careful because other people might overhear him speaking to her like this and take offense.
She talked about an incident where she filed a formal complaint.
When Sonia Sotomayor was in her final year at Yale law school, she pulled a gutsy move by filing a complaint against a law firm that was interviewing her for a job. She forfeited any chance of working at that firm, but ended up getting an apology.
After a Yale student-faculty hearing determined that one of the firm’s lawyers asked her discriminatory questions, the firm said his actions were “insensitive and regrettable.”
All of this arose after a dinner in October 1978 at which the lawyer met with Sotomayor and other Yale students. The tribunal concluded that he asked her, “Do law firms do a disservice by hiring minority students who the firms know do not have the necessary credentials and will then fire in three to four years?”
It also found that he asked if Sotomayor would have been admitted to the law school if she were not Puerto Rican, and whether she was “culturally deprived.”
The day after the dinner, Sotomayor challenged the lawyer at her formal job interview. According to news accounts at the time, he said he didn’t mean any harm and invited her to the firm’s headquarters for another interview. Instead, she filed a formal complaint.
Praised for supporting Native Americans, Sotomayor talked about her visit to the Pueblos (one of the few places where Native Americans hadn’t been forcibly moved from their original homeland) and said that she serves all people.
At night, Justice Sotomayor thinks back on her day to review what she learned and who she helped that day. Sometimes she’ll get up and answer a request in an email.
I found much to learn from the life, stories, and advice of Justice Sotomayor.
On that March afternoon, I saw three groups getting tours at the same time, so a lot of people tour campus. Stanford University is highly regarded but very selective. Stanford’s Memorial Chapel, shown below, is available for weddings of Stanford alumni.