Justice Sonia Sotomayor (2009) (Photo by Diego M. Radzinschi/NATIONAL LAW JOURNAL)
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor said Monday that all lawyers should be required to provide pro bono legal services.
“I believe in forced labor” when it comes to improving access to justice for the poor, she said during an appearance at the American Law Institute’s annual meeting in Washington. “If I had my way, I would make pro bono service a requirement.”
Sotomayor made the comment in response to a question from institute director Richard Revesz about the dearth of legal services for low-income individuals.
The justice said she was aware of programs—like New York state’s—that make pro bono work a requirement for admission to the bar. She also acknowledged that some critics say lawyers who are compelled to work for free “may not give their best effort” to the task.
But professional and ethical duties require it, Sotomayor insisted. “It has to become part of their being,” she said.
American Law Institute president Roberta Cooper Ramo also quizzed Sotomayor, asking her at one point about the reaction she gets from the many nonlaw audiences she speaks to.
“Most lay people have no idea what lawyers do,” Sotomayor responded. “They ask, ‘Why are there so many courts?’ ”
Turning to the hundreds of lawyers at the institute meeting, Sotomayor said: “It is very important for us to understand that we have to educate the people about the importance of law.”
Sotomayor was also asked the perennial question about whether video of the high court’s proceedings should be allowed and broadcast.
“It is a much more complex question than I thought,” she said. During her visits with senators before being confirmed in 2009, she said, many of them told her the collegiality of the Senate was spoiled by the presence of cameras.
The American Law Institute, an independent organization composed of lawyers and judges, develops restatements of the law and model codes that governments can adopt. On Tuesday, institute members are scheduled to discuss controversial proposed changes in the model penal code regarding the definition of sexual assault.
Retired Justice John Paul Stevens is scheduled speak to the group on Tuesday.