Sotomayor recounts journey

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor LAW ’79 spoke to an audience of over 2,000 in Woolsey Hall on Monday.
Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor LAW ’79 spoke to an audience of over 2,000 in Woolsey Hall on Monday. Photo by Joyce Xi.

True ignorance is not asking for an explanation when you do not understand — whether that may be in school, with friends or even on the Supreme Court, according to Sonia Sotomayor LAW ’79.

In a talk on Monday afternoon in Woolsey Hall that was simulcasted in Battell Chapel, the Associate Justice of the Supreme Court discussed her new memoir, “My Beloved World,” which chronicles her journey from a Bronx housing project to her appointment as the first Hispanic on the nation’s highest court.

Before a crowd of over 2,000 students and faculty, some of whom had waited outside since 11 a.m. to secure a seat, Sotomayor spoke about her time as an undergraduate at Princeton and as a law student at Yale, as well as her views on affirmative action and her adjustment to her role on the Supreme Court.

“[My Beloved World] was not about telling you what I didn’t know,” Sotomayor said. “But it was about showing you what I learned.”

Sotomayor said returning to Yale during winter brings back fond memories. She recounted hand-delivering coffee with her then-husband many years ago to drivers stranded on the road in New Haven. But she added the Elm City was not the same in the 1970s as it as now, noting how the level of crime often made it difficult to explore the city beyond her Whitney Avenue apartment.

Though Sotomayor graduated from Princeton and went on to Yale Law School, she said both universities had represented an unreachable dream for a student of her background. When an older classmate urged her to apply to the Ivy League, she said her first question was: “What’s that?”

Sotomayor said she chose Princeton over Yale in part because her visit to Yale was filled with post-Vietnam protests and talks of the Cuban Revolution. At the time, Yale felt “too progressive” for her parochial school background, she said.

Although she said she gravitated toward making friends in the Latino community while in college, she urged students to engage with people of different backgrounds and beliefs.

“Use the people you are comfortable with as your safety net,” Sotomayor said. “But do not let them anchor you.”

Sotomayor said adjusting to life at an elite school was difficult. She said she received a C on her first paper because she was unfamiliar with college writing conventions, such as organizing ideas around a common theme. However, through her hard work and the support of a mentor in the Latin American Studies department, she ultimately graduated from Princeton summa cum laude and as a member of Phi Beta Kappa.

Sotomayor said she attributes her success to her competitive nature, which drives her to compete not with others but with her own expectations for herself.

“I don’t take big gulps and then expect to improve things automatically,” Sotomayor said. “It is that competitive spirit to improve myself step-by-step.”

When asked about her views on affirmative action, Sotomayor said affirmative action as a general principle has carried ideas expressed through the civil rights movement — such as equalizing opportunity and diversifying thought — into higher education.

Sotomayor said she often spends her time visiting inner-city schools and working with admissions committees to speak with high-performing, low-income students. She added that her academic background was a crucial factor in her nomination as an Associate Justice.

“Without affirmative action, I couldn’t have even participated in the race of a good education,” Sotomayor said. “I didn’t even know there was a race being run.”

Sotomayor said she sometimes struggles to strike a balance between her native roots and her current life, noting that she has changed so much since attending University that returning home can often make her feel “alien.”

Still, Sotomayor said that when President Obama called her to formally nominate her as a Supreme Court Justice, one of the two things he asked was for her stay connected to her community.

She said she replied, “Mr. President, I don’t know how to do anything else.”

Much like her adjustment to college, Sotomayor said that her first year on the bench was marked by constant learning. Since many of the justices had spent years together, she said she would often have to tap Justice John Paul Stevens during discussions to ask about an unfamiliar term or approach.

Sotomayor said her goal was not to be the smartest sitting judge, but to be a competent one. She added that in her view, her opinions have been getting better — and shorter — with every year.

“I was walking into a continuing conversation,” Sotomayor said. “If I had been unwilling to just show my ignorance, I would have felt lost [for] longer.”

The event was moderated by Judith Resnik, a professor at the Yale Law School. Secretary and Vice President Kimberly Goff-Crews ’83 LAW ’86, who gave a brief introduction at the beginning of the event, said it was appropriate for Resnik to be moderating the discussion, since Resnik had argued the case that became Sotomayor’s first written opinion for the Court.

Resnik ended the discussion by asking whether Sotomayor had any hesitation in writing her book, which Sotomayor has described as unprecedentedly candid. Sotomayor said she was anxious to see how the public and her colleagues would respond, but mainly hoped that the book’s more sensationalist moments, such as when she received Quaaludes — a sedative-hypnotic drug — as a wedding gift, would not overpower the broader story.

Sotomayor also spoke at a second event with Linda Greenhouse LAW ’78 at the Yale Law School auditorium on Monday afternoon.

Students, faculty and New Haven residents interviewed who attended the talk in Woolsey Hall praised Sotomayor’s eloquence and her compelling narrative.

New Haven Mayor Toni Harp ARC ’78 told the News that she enjoyed how Sotomayor used stories to connect with people, a technique she hopes to use in resolving and dealing with issues in the Elm City.

Marta Moret SPH ’84 said Sotomayor’s comments about straddling two different worlds particularly resonated with her, since she and Sotomayor are both of Puerto Rican descent. In fact, both Moret and Sotomayor grew up on Kelly Street, the same boulevard in the Bronx. After hearing Sotomayor speak in Washington, D.C., Moret said she invited Sotomayor to visit Yale and stay at the President’s House.

“I told her, ‘Mi casa es su casa,’” Moret said.

Students lined up to take photographs with the Justice and to request autographed copies of her memoir, which was sold outside the event.

Montserrat Legorreta ’15 said the talk helped her realize the importance of helping one’s community and never losing sight of what is important.

Isiah Cruz ’17, who has read Sotomayor’s memoir, said her journey made him recognize that while adversity is difficult, it can be overcome. He added that during the reception following the event, he told Sotomayor that he hopes to clerk for her in the future.

While at Yale Law School, in addition to serving as a managing editor for the Yale Studies in World Public Order, Sotomayor was a bouncer and a bartender at GPSCY bar.

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