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February 1, 2011

Sotomayor speaks at Law School

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Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor had a few words of advice for law students Monday morning: work on something you’re passionate about, but don’t try to tackle all the world’s problems.

The 111th Justice addressed an audience of University law students and faculty about her transition to the Supreme Court and reflected on her experiences in each level of her career, starting with her time at Yale Law School.

“Do you stop and read? Do you sit and stop and talk for the sake of talking? Do you ever go to a movie?” Sotomayor asked. She cautioned against the modern “information overload” and the trend for law students to be over-involved. Instead, she praised law students who have a single passion.

Sotomayor said her informal discussions with fellow law students helped her form her own views on issues. “Those conversations, I don’t know if they were educational because we were still students, but they were educational in opening our hearts and minds.”

As the first Hispanic member of the Supreme Court, Sotomayor said her distinction does not largely influence her decisions. “I do think I have a special role on the court, but not in the way that you think.”

She believes her presence has encouraged an increase in the number of Spanish-speaking groups visiting the courthouse, and though she sees reaching out to these new visitors and students as a priority, “I don’t come to the process [of decision-making] as a woman of color,” she said. “I am first and foremost a justice committed to the rule of law.”

Following her nomination by President Obama in May of 2009, Sotomayor’s hearings included criticisms surrounding a 2001 remark when she described herself as a “wise Latina woman.” She was confirmed in August 2009 and despite the grueling confirmation process Sotomayor endured, she still views the evaluations as necessary.

“As critical as it often times is, the process will give people cause to think about the qualities they want in a justice,” she said, describing the experience as “one of the few times when you hear people talking about the institution of the court and our history.”

Sotomayor, known for her outspoken style, was asked about her reputation of confidence on the bench. “I think people mistake exuberance, passion, and intensity, for self-confidence,” she answered the University law student. “Almost everything I’ve done, I’ve been frightened about doing—including being a Supreme Court Justice.”

“When people perceive you as an inspiration, you’re almost doomed for failure at some point, especially when you’re a judge,” she said. “It’s the nature of judging.” Ultimately, Sotomayor believes she has an obligation to serve the larger community.

She recalled her first court appearance as a district judge: “My knees were knocking. I was convinced the whole court room could hear them.” Still, she said that her desire to serve has overcome fears at every level of her varied career. “Everything I’ve undertaken, I’ve had my knees knocking and my stomach churning.”

Sotomayor lamented the new media scrutiny she has had to handle in her transition to her post as Supreme Court Justice. “Being a public figure on this level has destroyed any sense of anonymity that I had. It’s a whole different world,” she said.

“The greatest asset you have as an attorney is your integrity,” she said, leaving the law students with her final advice. "Never leave a job unfinished."

Sotomayor planned to speak at Northwestern Law School today, but the event was cancelled due to weather.

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