Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor told Cornellians Thursday that their “most important job in this life” is to change the world for the better.
In a discussion at Bailey Hall, the first Latina Supreme Court justice recalled the culture shock of arriving at Princeton as an undergraduate, said diabetes has forced her to have an unusual level of discipline and remembered being determined to “hold on to who I was” when she joined the nation’s highest court.
“I’m here today and I speak publicly because I’m trying to engage every student in this room to remember that your most important job in life, as a member of this community, is to be involved in bettering it,” she said. “To be a voice for change, to take action when you see things you don’t like, to be civically involved in making this a better union.”
In between her advice to students, Sotomayor also quipped with retired federal appeals court judge Richard C. Wesley J.D. ’74, who led the discussion.
At one point, Sotomayor told Wesley that the other justices on the Supreme Court “like things that I don’t really love.”
“They’re opera lovers. I like jazz,” she said. “And I can’t get any of them to go to jazz with me.”
“They’ve got no funk!” Wesley replied.
“That may be true,” Sotomayor said, smiling and jabbing a finger toward Wesley, her former colleague on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.
And when Wesley asked her if she preferred bourbon or beer, Sotomayor responded with characteristic certitude: “Bourbon.”
Students inched to the edge of their seats to shake the justice’s hand as she moseyed around the packed auditorium in the middle of the event, under the close watch of at least two U.S. marshals.
Cornell Law School Dean Eduardo Peñalver ’94 introduced Sotomayor by noting that the justice had been criticized after her nomination for speeches in which she had said she hoped that Latina women with certain experiences would, more often than not, reach better conclusions than white men who had not had those experiences.
“The ensuing pseudo-controversy made the phrase ‘wise Latina’ something of a battle cry,” Peñalver said. The dean said the “distinctive voice” Sotomayor uses on the court shows she was right that, “as a Latina, she brings an important perspective to the federal judiciary.”
Sotomayor said serving as a judge for the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York continued to influence how she thought about the effects of her decisions after she was nominated to the appeals court in 1997 by Bill Clinton and the Supreme Court in 2009 by Barack Obama.
“I am the only judge — justice — who in every single opinion I write, I talk about the consequences of our ruling,” Sotomayor said. “And I really do think that that’s a product of having been on the trial court, because there you have parties who appear directly before you. You see them as human beings.”
In response to a pre-submitted question from a law student about what advice Sotomayor had for young women entering law, the justice said female attorneys must “keep on trying.”
“You don’t get heard unless you keep asking,” Sotomayor said, a response punctuated by applause because the justice finally found and hugged the third-year law student who asked the question. “You can’t take disappointment and despair and let it control you. We have only one option in this world, and that’s to keep on trying.”
“People have died for our freedoms,” Sotomayor continued. “How many civil rights leaders gave their lives so that we could have the voices we have today?”
Also notable at the Cornell discussion was what the two judges left unmentioned. Wesley did not bring up any Supreme Court decisions or the controversial confirmation this month of Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who was accused of sexual assault after his nomination. And when Wesley said “let’s talk about the court just for a second,” Sotomayor quickly countered, “Be my guest.”
But Sotomayor spoke at length about being the first person in her family to attend college after growing up in the Bronx, living with diabetes since childhood and how her rise to the Supreme Court had challenged her.
She said being confirmed to the court “was like going from one world to the universe.”
“You get on the Supreme Court, the platform is the world,” she said. “And that platform becomes all-consuming. Being a justice just changes your life in such a fundamental way, and I was overwhelmed by those changes the first year.”
Sotomayor said she spent a lot of her time wondering why she was there.
“And, for me, I realized something that I feared, which is, I liked Sonia,” she said. “I loved my life. I loved New York. I loved everything that I had grown up with, and I was afraid in this new world I would lose it.”
“I started to realize that I had to hold on to who I was. And for me, the process to do that was writing that book,” she said, referring to her newly-published children’s book, Turning Pages: My Life Story.
Sotomayor said her first few days at Princeton exposed her to people who had much different backgrounds. One woman from the South told Sotomayor that many men in her family had gone to Princeton and that she was proud to be the first woman in her family to attend.
“And I’m sort of listening to her thinking, I’m the first in my family to go to college, forget about going to a place like Princeton,” Sotomayor said. She later graduated from Yale Law School.
When Sotomayor’s Mexican-American roommate and Puerto Rican friend walked toward her, Sotomayor said the Southern woman next to her “looks at me and says, ‘This is what I love about this place: there are so many different and strange people here.’ And I sat there and I thought, ‘and here I thought you were the strange one!’”
Sotomayor said many people at Princeton did things — like travel to Europe, eat certain foods — that she never dreamed of doing.
“It’s so interesting,” she continued. “I never imagined them, and yet, now, I’ve done them all.”
Sotomayor said monitoring her body’s blood sugar and always thinking about what she eats had taught her “to do something most people forget, which is how to take care of myself.”
“I have a discipline that most people don’t possess,” she said. “And I’m sure, very sure, that had to do with my diabetes. I have to be monitoring my body every moment to see how I feel.”
As Sotomayor smiled at attendees and shook their hands, Wesley joked, “she’s really running for president,” to uproarious laughter and applause.
He backtracked moments later, calling it a “completely unauthorized joke” and saying that “[Chief Justice] John Roberts would have my head.”
That prompted Sotomayor to interject: “Yes — no, I would!”