Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor said Tuesday night that the lack of diversity in race, gender and background poses a "huge danger" to the judiciary, both federal and state. She also slammed the legal profession for perpetuating the glass ceiling, asserting that the number of minority partners in law firms is "dismally small."
Sotomayor made her comments in an otherwise upbeat appearance at American University Washington College of Law, regaling more than 200 students with stories about her upbringing in the Bronx and her love of dance and biking. She said that after being "chained to my desk" for the first years of her tenure on the court, she bought a bicycle in September and is exploring the Tidal Basin, Crescent and Mt. Vernon trails, among others.
As for dancing, Sotomayor said it was an example of her advice to students to keep trying to improve themselves even in activities that they have not mastered. "I can't keep a beat to save my life," she said, but still likes to dance. When she does, Sotomayor said, she scans the floor for good dancers "and I follow the beat from them." Cautioning that she was not disparaging Cubans, she added that she does not follow the "tight little dance steps" favored by Cuban men. Instead, she said, "I look for those Dominicans" who really know how to keep a beat.
After reading excerpts from her book My Beloved World, Sotomayor took questions from students, then making sure that an AU photographer snapped pictures of her standing with the questioners. Several questions involved diversity, and Sotomayor did not hold back in her answers.
"We're missing a huge amount of diversity on the bench," she said, and not just racial or gender diversity. It bothers her that judges rarely come to the bench from the defense bar, from civil rights experience, or from solo or small practices. She stressed that she did not think a more diverse bench would necessarily decide cases differently. "None of us speak in one voice." Instead, enabling the public to see their own backgrounds reflected in the judiciary would "give the public more confidence" that they are getting a fair hearing.
She urged the students, when they become lawyers, to get involved with judicial selection at both the state and federal levels to "keep the conversation going" about the importance of diversity.
Asked if a "glass ceiling" still exists in the legal profession more generally, Sotomayor said, "Certainly, there is ... It is really a 'slow go.'" She added, "Every area of the law is missing diversity." Sotomayor praised AU's law school, which was founded by women in 1896, and boasts that 40 per cent of its entering class this year is minority and 58 per cent women.
Sotomayor also urged students to help address "the crying need" for better lawyering in the field of immigration law. When she heard immigration appeals as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit from 1999 to 2008, she saw "horrible lawyers" and "terrible fraud" committed by lawyers who charged large fees in immigration cases but did not know what they were doing. She praised, by name, the current chief judge on the Second Circuit, Robert Katzmann, for initiating training programs to improve the quality of the immigration bar.
At one point during her talk, Sotomayor paused and signaled to a member of the security detail that accompanied her. The aide handed the justice a cube of sugar, which she ate. Sotomayor, who has diabetes, explained that she now wears a "continuous blood testing device" and it beeped, alerting her that her blood sugar was low.
Longtime dean Claudio Grossman introduced Sotomayor to the students, joking that she is one justice whose name he can pronounce "without an accent." Grossman was born in Chile.