Sonia Sotomayor

Sonia Sotomayor
Image Credit: Clemson University Relations

When Sonia Sotomayor came to the Brooks Center on Sept. 14, President James P. Clements noted that it was the first time a sitting justice of the U.S. Supreme Court had spoken on the Clemson campus.

But on this day, Justice Sotomayor made sure there was very little sitting.

Sotomayor moved through the packed house of more than 900 members of the university community, stopping several times to organize group photos as she candidly answered questions submitted in advance by students.

“One of the wonderful things about being a Supreme Court Justice is that they let me do what I want,” she said.

Sotomayor’s visit was sponsored by the President’s Forum on Inclusive Excellence in partnership with the Humanities Advancement board of the College of Architecture, Arts and Humanities.

Moderator Vernon Burton, professor of history and director of the Clemson CyberInstitute, introduced Sotomayor as “not only my friend, but a true American hero.”

The two have known each other since their days at Princeton University, where Sotomayor was once his research assistant.

With warmth and wisdom, Sotomayor spent one hour answering questions while weaving in personal anecdotes, inspiration and advice. But first, she asked for a moment of silence for those injured or suffering from the effects of recent hurricanes and an earthquake.

Unexpected career

The day’s first question came from philosophy major Chiodera “ChiChi” Drayton-Smith, who asked Sotomayor what parts of her journey to becoming a Supreme Court justice were unexpected.

Every turn was unexpected, Sotomayor said.

Sotomayor, who has served on the U.S. Supreme Court since 2009, grew up in public housing in the Bronx, New York. As a child, she never dreamed of being a lawyer or a judge, much less a Supreme Court justice.

“To dream about something you don’t know is impossible,” she said.

Success, she said, has three components: hard work, overcoming your fears about taking chances and a little bit of luck.

“Everyone has opportunity,” she said. “In a moment of fortuity, make a decision to take a chance.”

Leadership and courage

Haley McKay, who is studying women’s leadership, communication and minoring in Spanish, wanted to know Sotomayor’s philosophy on leadership.

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor speaks to the crowd from the floor of the Brooks Center.

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor speaks to the crowd from the floor of the Brooks Center.
Image Credit: Clemson University Relations

“Find the best in people, and appeal to that,” Sotomayor said. “Make people you are working with give you their best. Challenge them to be the best person they can be. Once you do that, they can rise to your expectations.”

Undergraduate student body President Killian McDonald, who also is studying women’s leadership in addition to political science, asked the next question: “As a woman of color, how do you separate personal attacks from political disagreements?”

Sotomayor paused for a moment, then answered that she identified as a woman of color. “It is not merely my identity, my identity as a Latina, but it is how people have treated me,” she said.

Sotomayor recounted how some people challenged whether she was qualified to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court, despite her distinguished resume:

As an undergraduate she won Princeton University’s highest academic honor. She attended law school at Yale and was editor of its law journal. She worked in the public and private sector, serving as an assistant district attorney in New York and was a partner at the law firm Pavia & Harcourt.

Sotomayor was appointed to the U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, then served as a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit before President Barack Obama nominated her as an associate justice of the Supreme Court in 2009.

When facing unjust attacks, “It always hurts,” she said.

If it hadn’t been for friends, she said she might have pulled out during the U.S. Supreme Court confirmation process.

But instead of wallowing or staying angry, Sotomayor found courage. “You have to measure yourself by the progress you make at every opportunity you’re given,” she said.

You can’t allow others define what you value, she added. And as a woman of color, you have to be comfortable in your own skin.

Advice for students

Philosophy major Marina Shew asked, “If you could go back and give your undergraduate self some advice, knowing what you know now, what would you say?”

“I would be less traumatized by every choice I made as an undergraduate,” Sotomayor said.

She said she tortured herself worrying about taking the right classes, being in the right major, or heading to the right law school.

Clemson history professor Vernon Burton asks Justice Sonia Sotomayor a question from the audience.

Clemson history professor Vernon Burton asks Justice Sonia Sotomayor a question from the audience.
Image Credit: Clemson University Relations

“The reality is … there are no really bad choices, unless you engage in criminal activity. Other than that, any choice you make can be corrected,” she said.

“If you look, you will find friends, and you will find activities to engage in… Everything you do can teach you something.“

Inspiration

Before the event, Richard Goodstein, dean of the College of Architecture, Arts and Humanities said he was thrilled that students would have the opportunity to hear from “a remarkable public servant and an exemplary role model.”

And the students in attendance were clearly taken by Justice Sotomayor’s dynamic talk.

“As a Latina, to see someone like me presented on this campus, that’s so important to see,” said Amanda Arroyo, a graduate student in the department of history.

For Arroyo, hearing Sotomayor speak was an extra push to achieve. “It’s nice to see someone that’s made it so far,” she said.

Another student, Mitzi Gamez, a senior studying materials science and engineering, said she appreciated Sotomayor’s comments about striving to learn and giving back. “The more you know, the more you can make a difference, not only on campus but in our own community,” she said.

The law

Sotomayor was insightful and funny at times as she touched on many topics during her question-and-answer session at Clemson.

Before meeting privately with law, liberty and justice students from the philosophy department in the College of Architecture, Art and Humanities, Sotomayor closed her public appearance by talking about the difference between law and justice.

William Powell, a student in modern languages, had asked what young people should know about the field of law.

“Let me start with what the law is not. It’s not about moral justice,” Sotomayor said. “One person’s justice is another person’s injustice.”

In her field, there must be a steadfast belief in the rule of law, and Sotomayor has faith in the system she’s chosen.

“We’re not God. As judges, you can’t ask us to play God,” she said. “Laws are made by people. They can be changed by people.”