Thirty-three years ago, Sonia Sotomayor LAW ’79 never would have imagined that one day she would be addressing 1,800 alumni, faculty and students in Woolsey Hall, she said Saturday as she did just that.
Sotomayor, who became the country’s first Hispanic justice on the U.S. Supreme Court in August, was back on campus this weekend to take part in her 30th reunion. At the Woolsey Hall event, Sotomayor discussed her time at Yale and her experience of being nominated for the Supreme Court position with Law School professor Kate Stith, according to five audience members who attended the event, which was closed to the press.
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When asked after her talk at Woolsey what it was like being back in New Haven, Sotomayor told the News, “It’s great being back.”
For much of the talk, Sotomayor spoke of the lengthy process of becoming President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, audience members said.
The judge said that the day Obama was elected president of the United States was the day that her life “went topsy-turvy.” Speculation of how courts would be affected by this change in government began, and Sotomayor’s name started to get mentioned in the press.
On Apr. 27, 2009 Sotomayor received a phone call on the way to the gym and her office saying the White House Legal Counsel Office was trying to get in contact with her, two audience members said. Writing down the number, Sotomayor got in her car and called the office back, she said.
Sotomayor said she was told the office had reason to believe there would be a resignation on the Supreme Court. A staffer told her the office wanted to include Sotomayor’s name on a list of potential candidates that would be background-checked, she said. “Do not tell anyone,” the staffer added.
“My heart skipped a beat,” Sotomayor told the audience.
Sotomayor said the investigation was very intrusive — an agent from the FBI was even sent to investigate a parking ticket that the Supreme Court judge had received two years beforehand, she said.
She also spoke about her nerve-wracking interview with Obama, audience members said.
“It was a conversation like none other that I have ever had,” Sotomayor said, adding that she “almost fainted” when she met the president.
Shortly after the interview, Obama called Sotomayor to inform her that he nominated her to be the new Supreme Court justice.
Sotomayor also answered Stith’s questions about her experience at the Law School, audience members said. For Sotomayor, the most important aspect of her time at the Law School was the time she spent with her classmates, she said.
“Afternoons that others would consider wasted hours, to me, were my Yale experience,” Sotomayor said,two of those audience members recalled.
Of her education, Sotomayor said “learning was fun at Yale” — more so than at Princeton, where she earned her undergraduate degree. She noted that during her time at Yale, professors treated students as equals, which she said was rare at law schools, and that the Law School was very diverse — another issue that is very important to her.
Students sat primarily on the second and third floors of Woolsey Hall to listen to the judge. Elisabeth Centeno LAW ’11 said that she appreciated the opportunity to hear Sotomayor’s story.
“Every time I hear her speak, her humbleness is exuded,” Centeno said. “She really is someone to look up to, and I’m so grateful to her for being the voice of diversity. Not all people of color do that.”
Other students said they were less pleased that Sotomayor’s talk focused on her time at Yale and her ascension to the Supreme Court.
“I was really disappointed that she didn’t spend any time talking about more extensive policy issues,” Arjun Kavi ’12 said. “The reason I wanted to go was to hear about issues that are facing the Supreme Court, but the discussion seemed to pointedly avoid that.”
After the event at Woolsey, Sotomayor met with present and former deans of the Law School, faculty and close friends in an intimate coffee discussion in the Law School Dean’s Office before attending a dinner in the President’s Room at Woolsey Hall with the rest of the class of 1979.