April 3, 2014 – U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor talked about the importance of relationships, public service and not being afraid in a conversation with Georgetown law professor Eloise Pasachoff during yesterday’s Bernstein Symposium.
Sotomayor recalled her first day of work after being appointed by President Obama – and how she introduced herself to people working in the building, from her fellow justices to the elevator operator and cafeteria staff.
The introductions were important because relationships matter, Sotomayor told a packed audience of students and other Georgetown community members in Gaston Hall.
Support is Crucial
“No one succeeds by themselves,” explained the justice, who has served for almost five years on the Supreme Court. “Whether you run a business, or you’re in an office or you’re a Supreme Court justice, you’ve got people around you to support your effort. You have to be grateful to those who help you.”
Sotomayor’s career in law spans about 35 years – as both a lawyer and a judge. Before the Supreme Court, she had 17 years of judicial service under her belt – more than any justice in the last 100 years.
This includes her time as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit from 1998 to 2009.
Her desire to serve the public began in the 1970s at Princeton University, where she volunteered at a local mental health facility speaking Spanish to patients who couldn’t understand English.
“[With public service,] you’re talking about people and their needs and about structure of society and some of its weaknesses in helping people,” she explained.
She said it bothered her that the patients could not communicate what they were feeling or even how they were admitted to the facility.
“There’s nothing more boring to me than living in my own head,” she said of public service. “You need to feed yourself in positive ways to be able to relate and give back in more meaningful ways. … each experience gave me so much more in return than I gave it.”
A Frightened Kid
Sotomayor talks more about her experiences at Princeton and Yale Law School in her 2013 memoir, My Beloved World.
The book also chronicles some of the challenges the New Yorker faced growing up in the Bronx as the daughter of Puerto Rican parents, the loss of her father, her battle with juvenile diabetes and overcoming the fear of asking questions when you don’t know the answer.
“Fear of embarrassment will hold you back,” she said. “I was afraid an awful lot. Inside myself, the image I have of me is still as that nine-year-old kid with the curls running down that street in Puerto Rico ...”
She also said societal structures may play a role in how fearful grown women become.
“For many [women], we don’t come to our lives with the same self-confidence that sometimes men do, and I think part of that may be because of societal gender treatment differences,” Sotomayor said. “If I could talk to the younger Sonia, I would [say] spend a lot less time in that state of constant fear.”
Georgetown College’s government department brings distinguished guests such as Sotomayor to campus each year for the Bernstein Symposium, designed to provide ongoing discussions with scholars, policymakers and students about challenges and opportunities confronting public institutions.
The symposium is named for the late Marver H. Bernstein, a former professor of politics and philosophy at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown.
Robert Katzmann, chief judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, helped found the Bernstein Symposium.
“My friend, Marver Bernstein, was someone who admired individuals of professional excellence committed to public service of high moral character striving to reach beyond their seeming grasp until they obtained their aspirations, no matter what the difficulties,” he said. “Marver Bernstein would have loved Sonia Sotomayor.”