Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor on Debate and the Legal Profession
On Friday, August 27, 2010, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor addressed an audience of students, law school faculty, and community members at the University of Denver Sturm School of Law. She spoke about the importance of diversity in the legal profession and about her life experiences. Her address was followed by a Q & A, during which three Denver UDL students and alumni were invited to ask questions. The event was hosted by the Sturm College of Law and the Colorado Campaign for Inclusive Excellence (CCIE).
View C-SPAN's video coverage of the event.
Q & A Transcript
Following the event, Denver UDL debaters had the chance to ask Justice Sotomayor about her debate experience. The Q & A transcript is below:
Jessica Keys: Good afternoon Justice Sotomayor. My name is Jessica Keys and I'm from Manual High School. My question was how was life different moving from the Bronx to Princeton University.
SS: The first week I was in Princeton, I spent virtually every night looking for the cricket who was making noise in my room. Now the only cricket I had ever seen was in a cartoon about Jiminy Cricket. So I knew it had long legs and it made that noise. I took that room apart every single night. Finally on the weekend a friend from New York came to visit me, and I told him about the cricket, and he started to roar in laughter, and said to me, "Sonia the cricket's not in the room, it's on the tree outside the window!" I never had a tree outside the window when I was growing up. That was the beginning of feeling like I had just landed in an alien land. That is how I have often described it. It was so totally different from anything I had ever experienced.
First of all, I don't know how many of you have ever seen pictures of Princeton. If you haven't, go on the Internet and take a look. But it's made up of Gothic architecture, what they call Collegiate Gothic architecture. It is really out of a story book. You walk around: there's grass everywhere, there's trees everywhere, these big beautiful buildings, you almost feel like you're somewhere in Europe walking through four or five centuries of history.
And the people who were there were so different from me. Many of these kids were from different parts of the country, and many from across the world. Many of them had had experiences I had heard about but never participated in. You know they took spring vacations in the Bahamas, Europe, and there, and that. They had read books that I had never even heard of. Ulysses - who had heard about Ulysses when I was in high school? - and I started to read it and I almost fell asleep. But the point is that I was different. I came from a different background and it took me a lot of hard work to sort of start to make a life for myself in that environment.
Did I feel completely a part of Princeton when I left? Now I had mastered Princeton by all traditional criteria. I think you may know that I graduated pretty high in my class, received a very prestigious honor there. So I had done everything that's expected of a student going to a place like Princeton.
But did I ever feel completely comfortable? Do you ever when you're that different? I'm on the Supreme Court today. I'm one of nine extraordinary people. I don't include myself in that nine. The other eight are just brilliant. Every morning I get up and I wonder "Am I really here?" "Do I really belong?" It takes a long time for that feeling to go away. All you can keep doing is plugging at each challenge and meeting it and eventually becoming comfortable enough to say "Even if I'm a little bit different, it's okay." I guess that's where I am now. It's okay.
Reuben Aguirre: My name is Reuben Aguirre and I'm a freshman here at the University of Denver. In high school I debated with the Denver Urban Debate League and now I'm a member of the University of Denver's debate team. I was just curious about your experience with debate in high school and how that impacted your education and how it affected your eventual nomination to the Supreme Court.
SS: I don't know how your debate competition goes on. But when I was in high school we would show up at a local college somewhere. Not so local, at one point in the winter I traveled to Buffalo and got snowed in and decided I was never going north for college, and I didn't.
The way our competitions went is that you went into this big room and were paired into teams, and you were handed your topic and the side you had to argue. You had 15 minutes to organize your thoughts and the debate started. That exercise probably assisted me in every stage of my professional life as a lawyer. Because the moment, as a lawyer and even as a person in almost any profession, that you can see both sides of an issue, that you can muster the best arguments on either side and come to a resolution as a debater on one side - but even as a lawyer or a judge in terms of making a choice. But after knowing what every side's arguments are and understanding them, then you feel that you're making a right decision. See because there's rarely ever any right and wrong answers. One of the things that people feel about law is, why isn't the law clear? Well the law is clear; you know what's not? Human Behavior. Because that's what the law address: the activities and relationships of people. And any time you're dealing with that, when you're applying that conduct to law, it's never quite black and white. So as far as me as a judge goes and how I've been able to live my career; it's always been, have I understood all of the arguments on each side? Have I fully appreciated what both sides are trying to say to me? I then come to a conclusion that I think is commanded by either the Constitution or the law, whichever is the issue that's implicated by the question. So being on the debate team was the foundation for me of that learning. And for all of you who are debaters in the audience - it's important not just if you want to be a lawyer or eventually a judge or a justice. But I think its important in all of your relationships. If you can deal with people by being passionate about your own views but sensitive to what's motivating other people - what their views are, why they think something's important - you can improve your relationship with them.
Mary Claire Potts: My name is Mary Claire Potts. I'm a senior at the Contemporary Learning Academy, and we'd like to thank you so much for the wonderful opportunity that you've given us today . The odds that you've overcome are extraordinary. What advice would you give to young people who feel that they are being held back by their financial situation?
SS: I don't want to be flip because I don't intend to. But I actually believe in getting into debt for education. For me, there is nothing more important long term than getting the best education you can at whatever cost you have to pay. And that often means getting more loans than you think you can afford and perhaps working more jobs than you think you can do. But I don't think there's an opener to doors in this society greater than education. Education opens your eyes to the world and lets you fly without a plane. It lets you experience the world in a very direct way, because it lets you think about things more deeply and more sensitively than you could on your own. And that's what education's about, it's about learning about things you don't see in your every day environment. That you wouldn't get to experience.
I'm not flippant when I say to you, "You can't let money hold you back." It means sacrifice. I actually started working when I was in high school, in my freshman year summer. And I worked summers and all year round. In college for two years I worked two jobs, and I was on a full scholarship, but I couldn't even on a full scholarship make it work without working. And I know it's hard and its tough but you just can't let it get you down. And you have to today do a lot of research on looking for ever financial assistance that's out there. Do you know that I got a scholarship from the New York State Rehabilitation Society? I was a juvenile diabetic and I didn't know I qualified for a rehabilitation scholarship when I was in high school, but I applied for it and I got it. Now who would have thunk? I didn't but I was doing research on every scholarship I could get. I found out my local church had a scholarship so I applied for it. It wasn't big money but it was small amounts that added up that led me to college.