At some point, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor got the message: When speaking to a group of Davidson College students or alumni, wear at least a splash of Davidson red and black.
So on Thursday – the college’s 178th birthday – Sotomayor wore a red silk scarf with black stripes when she walked into Davidson’s Belk Arena to take an hour of questions from students, faculty and college President Carol Quillen.
Yet it wasn’t just Sotomayor’s fashion that endeared her to the crowd. She was eloquent, but plainspoken enough that her answers didn’t sound as if they came down from the seat on the nation’s highest court that she’s occupied since August 2009.
And instead of remaining seated on a black leather loveseat on a stage, she climbed down and worked the crowd of about 1,600.
Bill Eskridge (Davidson class of 1973), a friend from Yale Law School, where he is now a professor, urged Sotomayor to make the visit.
She told a basketball court of seated students that she’d spoken at “countless” colleges and universities, and Davidson was the first school to seat students “front and center.”
Pointing to alumni and townspeople in the bleachers, she said: “Generally those guys are down here.”
The students cheered.
Sotomayor, the court’s third woman and first Hispanic justice, spoke honestly about her life and how her experiences have affected her nearly 25 years as a judge.
She was raised in public housing projects in New York’s South Bronx, primarily by her mother when her father suddenly died when she was 9.
After high school, she earned a scholarship to Princeton University, where “when I arrived, I thought I was an alien – not in a different land, but in a different world.”
“The people there had a better education than I did then,” she said. “They were taking spring breaks and flying places and they were traveling to Europe. Europe was a place I thought I’d never see.”
Yet Sotomayor would see the world.
After Yale Law School, where she was an editor of the law review, she was a prosecutor in New York City and then a litigator and ultimately a partner for a New York firm, before President George H.W. Bush nominated her as a U.S. District Court judge in 1991. Six years later, she was appointed by President Bill Clinton to the federal appeals court for the second district, where she would reside until President Barack Obama nominated her in 2009 to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Quillen asked Sotomayor to advise students on the college experience.
“I was in an environment that I had never imagined and that in itself was transformative,” she said. “But I was also learning in a way that I had never learned before. I loved not having to memorize facts, but to think about them.”
Sotomayor said she was drawn to law by the beauty of its regulations. “It regulates human relationships,” she said. “It sets boundaries for what people can and cannot do and those boundaries are what permit us to survive as a community.”
She used a stoplight as an example: “It tells you that you have to suppress your desire to be self-centered and egotistical to get to where you want to go as fast as you can. It tells you you have to give up that interest for the safety of the greater community – so the majority of people get to where they’re going safely.”
Quillen then asked how she stays grounded.
The justice told a story about asking for a case transcript when she first got to the Supreme Court. Something went wrong and she never got it. She told the supervisor she was annoyed.
The next day, the supervisor came to her office with flowers and “almost shaking” apologized. “I said, ‘You know it was a mistake. I was a little annoyed, but I don’t need flowers.’”
Overhearing, Sotomayor’s assistant told her: “Judge, don’t ever forget how people see you, and how frightened they are of you. If you do, you’ll be doing things to them that are hurtful. Don’t ever tell people that you’re annoyed. Just let them believe it.”
“That’s how I stayed grounded, trying to remember that,” Sotomayor said.
She isn’t necessarily for term limits for justices, saying “it takes years to become a good judge. I’m still learning as a justice.”
She said the current court could use more diversity of experiences. All its justices went to Ivy League schools, most are from the Northeast and none were defense lawyers before they took the bench. Few were small firm practitioners and many were academic lawyers. None, except for Sotomayor, had state government experience.
“That’s a bad thing,” she said. “We’re being asked to make decisions that affect every aspect of life. We’re reviewing state criminal law convictions every single day. It’s valuable to have someone there who can explain some of that.”
Junior Rashaun Bennett asked that since no one in the arena was around to ratify the U.S. constitution, “Why are we bound by it?”
She said the country has no other choice.
The constitution, she said, is a bill of rights. “It regulates what governments can’t do to its citizens. It can’t abridge freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press ... It can’t do unreasonable search and seizure and it must provide you with certain protections against going to jail.
“The basic format ... is to limit the power of government and that is not necessarily a bad thing for you or for me. Its essence holds the dreams of liberty.”