Justice Sotomayor at Clemson University

| October 4, 2017 | 0 Comments
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“As judges you can’t ask us to play God, to do what we think is right, because if we do that, we bastardize the most important principle we live by which is we believe in the rule of law and we believe that our role is one role and others have other roles to fulfill to do justice as well, and that means the legislature has to be taken to task when laws are not the laws we want.”

~Sonia Sotomayor, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court

 

Background to Clemson’s Supreme Court visit

On Thursday September 14th, 2017, my school of Clemson University was graced with a momentous visit by the honorable Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. This would be the first time in the school’s history since its founding in 1889 that a Supreme Court Justice would visit the school to deliver a speech. This was a highly anticipated event that would mark an historic day in Clemson’s History, amid a significant year for America during the emergent Trump Presidency, following the nomination and swearing-in of the newest Associate Justice: Neil M. Gorsuch, to the Supreme Court April 10th, 2017. Justice Sotomayor’s visit to the university was sponsored by the President’s Forum on Inclusive Excellence in partnership with the Humanities Advancement Board of the College of Architecture, Arts and Humanities. The moderator for the question-and-answer forum was Dr. Vernon Burton, Creativity Professor for Humanities at Clemson.

After being introduced by President James P. Clements, and brief introduction by Professor Burton, Justice Sotomayor would deliver an impactful speech to the eager crowd at Bellamy Auditorium including answering a number of questions submitted beforehand electronically by students, while recounting the adversity of overcoming the many social and academic hardships she faced early in her life before ascending the Steps of Parnassus to become a Justice.

The following section contains key passages from the speech on Justice Sotomayor’s unique biography and journey in her life leading to her time in the Supreme Court.

 

Justice Sotomayor’s speech at Clemson

What were some unexpected parts of your journey to becoming the Supreme Court Justice and how has your life changed since?”

JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: “I don’t think that there is anything I’ve done in life that hasn’t been an unexpected turn. So, starting with being on the Supreme Court okay. One must remember that I am the 111th Justice in the history of the Unites States, which means that in your lifetime, the likelihood is that the court may turn over maybe once, that there might be nine new justices in your lifetime. So, for those mathematicians and statisticians in the room, work out the odds. They say it’s as common as being struck by lightning.”

“But in life I think there are three components to success: hard work, overcoming your fears about taking chances and a little bit of luck, because there’s a lot of people who work very, very hard and don’t always achieve what it is that they want, and so you need that touch of luck, that touch of opportunity to come your way, and then you need the courage to take the chance even when you’re terrified, and that’s really been the story of my life was finding that courage.”

Justice Sotomayor then shifts to her first experience learning about the Ivy League universities and recounts how she was pushed by a close friend of hers to seek admittance into the very best schools in the nation, despite the major doubts she had about going to college at the time. Justice Sotomayor would obtain the honor of being admitted to Princeton University through Affirmative Action, later graduating summa cum laude, and offers encouraging guidance on how to manage college during difficult or uncertain periods in one’s life,

“My point is that being in Princeton was unexpected, but there are many kids who end up in environments like Clemson, like Princeton, and other schools of higher education from backgrounds like me who leave very quickly. They get overwhelmed by it. They meet a challenge that they feel they can’t overcome and they don’t find the way to overcome their fear and mine has been each step of my career has been that similar type of story. A moment of fortuity where I made a decision to take a chance, not always sure that it was the right thing to do including taking this job as a Supreme Court Justice, suffering great fears of anxiety. Would I be good enough? Particularly since people were saying that I wasn’t gonna be good enough. All of those things can work at you at every stage of your life, and so you really do need those three things to help you sort of move forward in life, but everybody has opportunity. It comes.”

“So, plan. Have an idea of what you want to do in your head, work hard to get there, but be flexible enough to change course when those unlikely opportunities go your way, and every time you’re scared, remember my words. The worst thing to do is to ever live your life regretting that you didn’t try. It’s one thing to try and fail. At least you tried. Take pride in that, but not trying means that you wake up thinking of yourself as a failure, and for me that’s unacceptable. The failure is in not trying at all.”

Justice Sotomayor speaking to Clemson students at the Brooks Performing Arts Center

“If you had to describe your leadership philosophy in one sentence, how would you do so?”

JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: “Find the best in people and appeal to that. Make people you’re working with give you their best. Challenge them to be the best person they can be. Once you do that, people will rise to your expectations. If you give people a sense that you’re confident in them, they will want to prove you right. That has always been my model of leadership.”

“As a woman of color how do you separate personal attacks from political disagreements?”

JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: “So, what makes me a woman of leadership? It is not merely my identity, my identity as a Latina, but it is how people have treated me. You know I talked a little bit earlier about the fact that during my confirmation hearing there were many critics who were saying that I simply wasn’t smart enough to be a Supreme Court Justice. Now, I graduated from Princeton summa cum laude, I’m an editor of the Yale Law Journal, I’ve been on the district court and the court of appeals. It’s hard to imagine what other credentials I could’ve gotten to prove I was smart.”

Justice Sotomayor concludes her answer to the question by elaborating on a key point and life lesson, in that it is not so important to dwell in the anxiousness of whether you are on the proper path in life toward developing a successful future. Instead focus on what you will accomplish when you have attained your dream or desire in life and focus on bettering yourself and those around you upon making it there,

“What I do is recognize that what I have to do is not care about how I get somewhere, but care about what I do when I’m there, and that’s a very different thing, which is you have to measure yourself by the progress you make in every opportunity that you’ve given. You have to sit not on the laurels of getting in, but what you accomplish while you’re there, and I talk in my book about the measure of success not being how close you get to an improbable  goal, because I may never have been a Supreme Court Justice, but I will tell you something.

Even if I hadn’t been, I told the President [Obama] this at the end of our interview. I thanked him for the honor of interviewing me and said to him I know you’re gonna have a very hard decision to make. I want you to know that even if you don’t select me, I will be the happiest person in the world. I was considered, I love the life I live and I’ll be very happy to continue living it. Thank you for this honor and I left, and I meant every word of it because it wasn’t getting to the Supreme Court that was my measure of success. It was all of the things I have done along my path to try to better myself, to try better my community, to help where I could, and those are the things that you have to, as a person of color, value. You can’t let others define what you value, and I think that’s what creates leadership.”

Judge Sotomayor before the Senate Judiciary Committee for the first day of hearings on July 13, 2009.

Justice Sotomayor’s official Supreme Court photo

Professor Burton then poses one last question from a student that gets to the heart of what the next section of this article seeks to address, in that it invokes the question of whether Justices should allow their personal and/or political preferences to influence their judicial decision making; which?

“What personal experiences and beliefs impact your decision making?”

“I mean I’ve had a couple of incidents when I was in the circuit court with particularly in certain areas where the government had choices and I would point to what the government’s choices were and ask the government to reconsider what it was doing, fully understanding one very important thing, we’re not God. As judges you can’t ask us to play God, to do what we think is right, because if we do that, we bastardize the most important principle we live by which is we believe in the rule of law and we believe that our role is one role and others have other roles to fulfill to do justice as well, and that means the legislature has to be taken to task when laws are not the laws we want. That’s why I tell people when they ask me questions. Do you like immigration laws?” “My answer is I can’t tell you because I’m not asked to like or dislike,” Sotomayor continued. “You are asked to do that and if you are unhappy with a particular set of laws, your job is to go out there and change them. Laws are made by people. Laws can be changed by people and similarly we can ask our government officials, demand that they do the right thing. They are there because we’ve elected them. We set the standard for their behavior and for what they do, and so for me, that’s how I live with putting my personal opinions aside, is having faith in the system I’ve joined and am a part of. I know its warts, I know its limitations. I know it doesn’t always work the way I want it to work, but it’s better than any other system I know and it works well a lot.”

Crowds of hundreds at Clemson University to attend the Historic Supreme Court speech

 

My question for Justice Sotomayor…

I truly learned a great deal from the many impactful lessons delivered throughout Justice Sotomayor’s speech. Her many pivotal decisions made to navigate through the many uncertainties she faced and overcame, such as: growing up in a family with a very modest income in the Bronx, admittance into the prestigious Princeton University, worked as a trial lawyer, and later becoming the first Latina to be nominated to the Supreme Court. She stands as a true testament to achieving her dream, overcoming the hardships of life toward ascending up through the benefits of a successful and increasingly rewarding career as one of America’s leading jurist. Justice Sotomayor delivered many lasting lessons for college students at Clemson and beyond to abide by when developing their first steps toward entering the job market such as: having the courage to push yourself to attain the highest possible success in academia, never shy away from at least trying to accomplish your goals, and to focus on not how you will get somewhere in life, but on how you will excel at your journey’s end once there.

Myself standing directly behind Justice Sotomayor (5th person to the left) among Clemson students

After delivering such an excellent address to my school of Clemson, I held the desire to ask a question of my own in the limited time permitted during the event. The topic of my question was touched upon slightly in the last question posed to you, which asked: “What personal experiences and beliefs impact your decision making?” My question is: “What do take of the increasingly apparent prospect of jurists legislating to promote public policy from the bench instead of merely interpreting the law?” You partially answer this question in the answer you give to the last question of your speech as stated above, saying:

“As judges you can’t ask us to play God, to do what we think is right, because if we do that, we bastardize the most important principle we live by which is we believe in the rule of law and we believe that our role is one role and others have other roles to fulfill to do justice as well, and that means the legislature has to be taken to task when laws are not the laws we want”

I agree entirely with this answer, however that in order to bridge the significance of my own related question into the topic, I would add the fact that the Founding Fathers specifically delineated the doctrine of the separation of powers between the Legislative, Judicial, and Executive branches of government. This means that no one branch can exceed its defined authority as etched throughout the eternal text of the Constitution. For the Executive branch, under Article II of the Constitution, as head of the Executive the President is responsible for the execution and enforcement of the laws created by Congress. For the Legislative branch, the Constitution grants Congress the sole authority to enact legislation, declare war domestically and abroad, the right to confirm or reject many Presidential appointments, and substantial investigative powers. Concerning the Judiciary, Article III of the Constitution leaves Congress significant discretion to determine the shape and structure of the federal judiciary, mandating that Judges and Justices serve no fixed term in court — they serve until their death, retirement, or conviction by the Senate. According to WhiteHouse.gov, “by design, this insulates them from the temporary passions of the public, and allows them to apply the law with only justice in mind, and not electoral or political concerns”.

I then repeat my question: “What do take of the increasingly apparent prospect of jurists legislating to promote public policy from the bench instead of merely interpreting the law?” There have been a wide range of instances in the Supreme Court and lower courts in America where the jurors allow their political preferences to influence the results of the case at hand, instead of interpreting its legality under the Constitution. Such examples have been explored by prominent legal scholars such as: Judge Robert Bork, who in his bestselling book, The Tempting of America (1990), which names multiple cases of political temptations by the Courts of the time, beginning with the most infamous example of Marbury V. Madison (1803), where Chief Justice John Marshall created out of whole cloth the new legal doctrine of  judicial review, allowing judges the power to invalidate executive or legislative statues, instead of merely interpreting their legality.

Bork also speaks on the infamous case of Dred Scott V. Sanford (1857), during the time of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, who was notorious for conflating his racist intentions with constitutional jurisprudence, in that Taney believed (falsely and tragically) tha the Constitution safeguarded the right to own slaves as property. In the 20th century, Bork heavily criticizes the landmark case: Brown vs. Board of Education (1954) as being the product of a politicized controversy, the decision of which belonged in the hands of state legislators, and thus accomplished judicial supremacy for the Court over other branches. On the matter Bork stated: “The Court is virtually invulnerable, and Brown proved it. The Court can do what it wishes, and there is almost no way to stop it, provided its result has a significant political constituency”. Bork also provides many other prominent examples in the 20th Century and nearing the turn of the 21st Century, such as Roe V. Wade (1973) and Texas V. Johnson (1989), politicized issues that were either best left to the states to decide or decided with a majority that hadn’t allowed their political preferences to dictate their decision.

In conclusion, I have thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity that few are granted in hearing a keynote speech from a Supreme Court Justice at my school. Justice Sotomayor’s visit was especially significant to me as a budding scholar due to the fact that I had the honor of meeting her colleague, Justice Clarence Thomas in December 2016, where I would have a special luncheon with him and his friend Dr. Walter Williams, upon dedicating a published article commemorating his 25 exceptional years in the Supreme Court.

The honorable Justice Clarence Thomas, myself, and the John M. Olin Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Economics Dr. Walter E. Williams

I plan to take to heart many of the key lessons Justice Sotomayor delivered throughout the address as stated in this article. Justice Sotomayor’s life journey to become one of only 4 female Justices and the first Latina Justice is a prestigious accomplishment that should be applauded by all, regardless of what your political views are toward the individuals in the court. It is my hope that Justices, judges, and all practitioners of the law hold with a high esteem the significance of the original intent of the Constitution, which establishes the separability of powers across all three branches of gov., with no one branch superior to the other. It is thus my hope, and all who truly cherish the purity of the Constitution, to see that all 9 Supreme Court Justices set the example to deny the temptation of political leanings of any sort in their court decisions, while making sure not exceed their judicial powers by only interpreting the law, instead of invalidating laws deemed “undesirable”. Exceeding gratitude to you, Justice Sotomayor, and from the entire Tiger Family of Clemson University for visiting my school in a momentous event that I will forever cherish.

Myself seated to the right behind Justice Sotomayor as she speaks among Clemson students

 

*N.B: This article is based in part on the below sources:

 

 

 

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Category: Socrates Corner

About the Author ()

Stone Washington is the son of Ellis Washington and the Website Administrator and Managing Editor for Ellis Washington Report. Stone is a Junior History Major at Clemson University, in Clemson, South Carolina, home of the 2016 College Football National Champions. All of Stone's articles can be found under the Socrates Corner section of the website, and often offer a critical analysis on prominent works of classical literature and its correlations to American history and politics. Some of Stone's most popular articles include: 1915-2015-100th Anniversary of Booker T. Washington, Atlas Shrugged, America Slouched - The Galt/Trump Revolution, and Justice Clarence Thomas, Generation Z, and Me. Friend him on his Facebook page, also Twitter @StoneWashington and Instagram. Contact Stone at his email: Stonebone20@att.net.

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