On Saturday, a third of the nation’s highest court gathered at Yale Law School to muse about their time at the school and share personal anecdotes from their life outside the court.
The Yale Law School Association — the alumni organization of the school — presented its annual Award of Merit to Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas LAW ’74, Samuel Alito LAW ’75 and Sonia Sotomayor LAW ’79 on Saturday. In his opening remarks, Law School Dean Robert Post said he presented the award to the Supreme Court justices for their contributions to United States law and society at large. Throughout the award ceremony and ensuing panel discussion, the justices talked about their lives before joining the court and their personal experiences on and off the bench.
“[The award] is our way of recognizing extraordinary alumni who have made substantial contributions to public service and the legal profession,” Post said. “Today we continue that tradition by honoring three alumni who without any question have contributed immensely to the substance of American public life.”
Post said the justices have “quintessentially American” backgrounds. Thomas was born in the Jim Crow South, while Alito and Sotomayor are both children of immigrants. While the three take substantially different ideological positions, Post said that the three are united by their persistence and shared dedication to public service.
Law School professor Kate Stith, who moderated the discussion, said the end goal of the discussion was to help the audience get to know the justices on a personal level. She asked them questions about a range of topics, from the last books they read to the coffee they most prefer.
Alito said his latest reads are “My Beloved World” and “My Grandfather’s Son,” written by Sotomayor and Thomas respectively, generating a laugh from the crowd. Sotomayor, meanwhile, talked about her passion for salsa dancing despite her inability to keep a rhythm.
Beyond discussing their preferences, each justice discussed their motivations for pursuing a career in law.
Alito and Sotomayor both said they decided to enter the legal profession when they were very young.
Sotomayor added what attracted her to the legal profession was that it is always stimulating. “I had a sense that law gave one an opportunity to learn new things constantly,” she said.
Thomas, however, said that while he originally wanted to be a priest, he was later “taken” by the excitement of law.
The justices also assessed their experiences at the Law School and offered words of advice to current students. Thomas said students should make the most of both their academic opportunities and the friendships they forge. He added that when choosing a job, students should prioritize integrity over prestige.
“I also suggest to them that when they take a job, if all things are equal, work for a good person. A good person can turn a difficult job into a fun job, and a bad person can turn a beautiful job into a miserable job,” he said. “I think it is important to work for good people: people of integrity, people who are positive. And finally, you treat people the way you expect to be treated, whether they deserve it or not.”
Audience members interviewed said the justices displayed humility and good humor during the talk, which made a traditionally insulated institution seem more human and accessible.
“In law school you read a lot of Supreme Court opinions. You get a good sense of how they view the law, but you never really get a good sense of who they are as people,” Avi Samarth LAW ’16 said. “Listening to them speak about that experience and the experiences they have had elsewhere gives you a much richer understanding of who they are, how the court operates on a day to day basis and how American law unfolds from people rather than doctrine.”
Law School professor Akhil Amar said it is important to remember that the law has an important human component, adding that the law is “processed through actual human minds that exercise judgment” and are affected by experiences.
Amar said it was entertaining to see “chemistry” between the three justices.
The Award of Merit has previously been presented to Gerald R. Ford LAW ’41, John Danforth LAW ’63, Joseph Lieberman LAW ’67 and Hilary Clinton LAW ’73.