Last night, I was invited by Judge Raymond Rodriguez (who currently sits on the bench in Brooklyn Criminal Court) to attend an event at the Second Circuit Court. The event was in support of a program started by CUNY Law School student Selina Caban that provides judicial internships to underprivileged NYC High School students. The event was held at the completion of the program’s inaugural year and the 20 or so students who participated were there with their families. The key note speaker was Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Ms. Caban student- clerked with Judge Denny Chin who went to Princeton with Judge Sotomayor and served on the SDNY and 2nd Circuit bench with her as well. Judge Chin was so impressed that Ms. Caban was able to get this program off the ground that he put her in contact with Judge Sotomayor who quickly agreed to provide support and attach her name to the program. Its official title is the Sonia and Celia Sotomayor Judicial Fellowship named after the judge and her mother.
Judge Sotomayor spoke to the group of about 60 people in the Second Circuit courtroom for about half an hour and then took questions from the students. Her responses were insightful, off-the-cuff, and revealed her to be very down to earth. She spoke freely about how she ended up on the Court – telling the kids that it was through connections she made serving on the board of a not-for-profit and her judicial experience; she explained to the young audience that establishing this network is vital because through it people notice the work you are doing and begin to think of suggesting your name for various openings that they are aware of through their connections.
She was also asked how growing up poor in the Bronxdale housing Projects in the Bronx, effects her decision-making. She answered that she was a little upset about how that was played up during her nominating process (she was questioned repeatedly about her comment that a “Wise Latina” would likely reach a better solution to problems) and that she had to remind people that she also worked as a prosecutor and at a large firm representing very large corporations and that this experience also informed her views on life and the law. She said that no one experience or facet of her life fully informed any of her decisions and that the law was always first and foremost. But her prior history and background give her perspective and the ability to understand the plight and position of others and of the litigants before her which in turn helps her see what needs to be remedied. That viewpoint could easily be seen in a passage from her famous dissent in the affirmative action case Schuette v. BAMN :
And race matters for reasons that really are only skin deep, that cannot be discussed any other way, and that cannot be wished away. Race matters to a young man’s view of society when he spends his teenage years watching others tense up as he passes, no matter the neighborhood where he grew up. Race matters to a young woman’s sense of self when she states her hometown, and then is pressed, “No, where are you really from?”, regardless of how many generations her family has been in the country. Race matters to a young person addressed by a stranger in a foreign language, which he does not understand because only English was spoken at home. Race matters because of the slights, the snickers, the silent judgments that reinforce that most crippling of thoughts: “I do not belong here.”
She also recently talked about the lack of criminal defense experience on the bench which I discussed in a recent article on these pages. She explained that she could not help but wonder whether the Court needed someone with criminal defense experience since she knew that her time as a prosecutor gave her a certain “World view” on criminal cases and that it would be helpful and prudent to have someone whose experience was informed from that side of the aisle in a criminal courtroom. In other words, Justice Sotomayor gets it – she understands that the Court and the Constitution are living breathing institutions that are informed by society and society’s experiences.
After the formal event, there was reception held in the main lobby of the Thurgood Marshall Federal Courthouse (coincidentally Justice Marshall was the last justice with any criminal defense experience). We were all advised that Judge Sotomayor would not be taking pictures or signing autographs with anyone besides the interns. Along with Judge Rodriguez, I was there with my son Steven who interned with Judge Rodriguez this past year and my old law school buddy Manuel Ortega who is the law chair of the Staten Island Democratic Committee.. By luck we were seated next to the door where Judge Sotomayor entered the reception. Without hesitating she came right over to us and asked us to introduce ourselves. We tried hard not to act like fans at a One Direction concert but it was hard to act calm and collected. I of course had to immediately tell her I was a Dominican immigrant who was raised in the Bronx and that I could not help but tell her the immense sense of pride produced by her being on the Bench. She was gracious and talked for quite awhile with us, even asking my son whether he was proud of and understood my accomplishments and the need to “follow in your Dad’s footsteps” and give back to the community. She stayed with us so long that it was us who broke off the conversation as we felt we were hogging her time and we knew that every person in the room wanted to speak with her.
What was remarkable was that we did not need to be concerned about that as she spent a great deal of time with everyone and all of us in the room had the chance to approach her and speak with her personally. She engaged everyone directly and asked as many questions of the attendees as we had for her. Growing up I only had on living person I idolized – Muhammad Ali. And while my admiration and respect for Ali has never waned it is now matched by my respect and admiration for Justice Sotomayor. Long may this Wise Latina serve the country as a Justice of the Supreme Court.
Here is a picture of me and my son Steven at the event (I’m on the right) in case you ‘re wondering :