In a speech late last week to law students, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor encouraged them to serve their communities, both as attorneys and as citizens.
It was that notion of service that led Sotomayor to consider a career in the law, she said during her October 26 presentation to the Equal Justice Works annual conference and career fair in Arlington, Va., which drew more than 1,000 law students from about 200 law schools.
“The law, regardless of how you practice it, if you practice honorably, you are doing service, and it was a service that appealed to me because it was a service I felt like I could contribute something to.” said Sotomayor. Judge David Tatel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit asked her questions onstage before members of the audience got a chance during a question and answer period.
Sotomayor conceded that she did not have lofty intentions when she made early career choices, but that she based her decisions on what she needed at each stage to develop skills to do meaningful work. She added that if the students in the audience think their job is the only form of public service available to them, they are narrowing themselves.
“Being an involved citizen requires not just doing a job, it requires being more involved in the broader issues of your community, of insuring you’re a good citizen in multiple different ways.”
Sotomayor said her goals were set when she was ten years old. After being diagnosed with childhood diabetes, she was told she could never go into law enforcement, which crushed her dreams of becoming a detective like Nancy Drew. She then discovered the TV legal drama Perry Mason and decided she wanted to become a lawyer.
Sotomayor said she developed a love of trial law while at Yale Law School. At the same time, she was reading about the judges in the American south who were helping to integrate communities there, and she admired them for it.
“I thought if I wanted to serve the community in the noblest way possible it would be to be a federal judge," she said. "You can do the same in a state court, but these men were affecting the nation as a whole and that truly was a draw for me.”
Sotomayor served as a judge on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, and on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, before being tapped for the Supreme Court. She was asked about the differences between serving on each bench.
She said that on appeals courts, whether it’s a federal circuit of the Supreme Court, your ruling sets the direction for pending and future cases, and that you're "doing justice for the law." That's why, she said, Supreme Court justices are often passionate when writing their decisions.
“If we get it wrong we are affecting the country," she said, "and so it is I think easier to remain friends, and to remain collegial, when you understand that we are all acting from good faith, even if we disagree with each other it is still born from a desire to do what we think is right.”
Sotomayor told the students that to give themselves a chance to become a federal judge, they need to act with courage and integrity.
“The vast majority of people who become federal judges have done some courageous thing in their life,” she said. “And so what I would say to all of you, it’s not the work you do, it’s how you do it. Do it well, do it with integrity and honesty.”