Inequality in education is the most pressing issue of diversity in the United States, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor said as she accepted an award Friday from the Philadelphia Bar Association for her accomplishments in diversifying the legal profession.
"Until we solve the structural problems that make an equal education unavailable in public and in private institutions, we will not be able to reach diversity of society," Sotomayor said. "To me, that is and remains our most pressing problem."
During a Q&A with association members, Sotomayor was frank and speckled her answers with humor as she addressed questions varying from whether being a trial judge has affected her jurisprudence, and if achieving historic milestones, like becoming the third woman and the first woman of color to sit on the nation's highest court, was an opportunity or a burden.
Pennsylvania Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille asked Sotomayor what going through the confirmation by the U.S. Senate was like. Pennsylvania elects all of its judges.
Sotomayor said that her confirmation process in 2009 was "horrible," "grueling" and she is not sure how to improve the process in order to satisfy a public that wants nominees to reveal how they would vote on cases not before them.
What the U.S. senators and the general public were looking for "is something I think any judicial applicant should never do, which is tell people how they would vote in a case that's not before them," Sotomayor said.
"If you can't satisfy that need, there has to be another purpose to that process. The only one I can think of is for the public to hear and meet a new justice and take stock of them as a person, of their character, integrity and their commitment to the rule of the law."
Sotomayor said that she doesn't know how she is going to vote on a case until she hears the arguments in the case and studies the case.
However, Sotomayor said that meeting America's senators was "sort of a window into America listening to them talking about issues they're passionate about."
Sotomayor was honored with the Philadelphia Bar Association's diversity award. The award was created in 2008 to publicly recognize an attorney who has made contributions toward full inclusion in the legal profession. The award is now being renamed in Sotomayor's honor as the Justice Sonia Sotomayor Diversity Award.
"I can't describe in words how deeply touched and humbled I am by receiving this award from all of you and having it renamed," Sotomayor said. "You see, as a child, it was impossible for me to dream of something like this ever happening. Kids ask me all the time: Did I dream of being a Supreme Court justice? I tell them, 'Honestly, I didn't even know there was one.'"
Abraham C. Reich, of Fox Rothschild, said the American Bar Association will be discussing at an upcoming meeting the Supreme Court's process for recusal, which leaves the decision of recusal up to the justices and does not impose any external review process. The process may undermine the confidence of the public in the Supreme Court, he said.
When Reich asked if it was possible to see a change on the court regarding recusal, Sotomayor said, "I don't know," with a rueful smile, before adding, "I used to teach my potential witnesses just to answer the questions asked."
When asked if working as a U.S. district court judge had impacted her decision-making as an appellate judge, Sotomayor said that as a judge on the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, she found that the most deferential appellate judges were those who hadn't worked as trial judges. When you're a district court judge, "you understand how easy it is to miss issues, not intentionally either, because the parties did not argue it that way in front of you," she said.
But Sotomayor stressed the importance of applying law to the facts of the case in order to avoid making bad law.
"We are a common law jurisprudence, which means we apply facts to legal principles," Sotomayor said. "To me, for that reason, broad announcements that aren't grounded in the factual record before you, I perceive, as potentially causing more harm than clarity in the law."
In a response to a question from Al Dandridge of Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis -- if reaching so many legal firsts in her career has been an opportunity or a burden -- Sotomayor said that it has been both, and that she has tended to not look beyond her own act of living to see how others might perceive her life.
"I understand, in my career as a justice, that I'm going to disappoint a lot ... I'm one of nine," Sotomayor said. "There's no way my voice can sway everyone in every case that people find important and ... there will be cases people will disagree with my decisions. ... That's the beauty of the American legal system: that we're bound to a rule of law and as such I'll render opinions that are not popular."
In response to another question, Sotomayor said that the best advocates are those who do not just merely advocate on behalf of their clients' interests but address the development of American law. The worst advocates are those who do not respect the law "as a living institution that will affect others. Once you get to the Supreme Court it's really about the development of the law as it will affect many, many other people and in many, many other cases," Sotomayor said.
Sotomayor said that equal justice under the law means that there is an equal process for everyone, and the losers in the courtroom feel that the process has been opened up to them.
But the justice warned that there are limitations to the judicial branch's ability to address society's problems because there are winners and losers in the courtrooms and the losers do not always feel that justice has been done for them.
You are "not going to solve society's problems in the courtroom," Sotomayor said. "To do that in a courtroom you're taking something away from at least half the parties in the room. You have to have a broader solution that deals with the underlying issues of the losing party and the needs of that party that can't be answered in the courtroom. It has to be answered in other arenas."
When Philadelphia Bar Association Chancellor Rudolph Garcia joked that Sotomayor would even take questions about Cliff Lee's return to the Phillies, Sotomayor, a fervent New York Yankees fan, said, "It doesn't matter what they do. They're still going to beat you."
Some in the audience, in true Philadelphia fashion, booed good-naturedly.
Sotomayor, the country's first Latina justice, was awarded the bar association's diversity award in a year in which the organization is being led by Garcia, the association's first Latino chancellor.
The award was the brainchild of former Chancellor Michael Pratt. The award was previously given to André L. Dennis of Stradley Ronon Stevens & Young and Nolan N. Atkinson Jr. of Duane Morris.