A conversation with Sonia Sotomayor at University of California Berkeley
A conversation with Sonia Sotomayor at University of California Berkeley (Jason Doiy / ALM)

BERKELEY — U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor held court on Thursday in front of an enthusiastic, capacity crowd at the 2,600-seat Zellerbach Auditorium on the UC Berkeley campus.

Sotomayor, the most frequent public speaker among the justices, was greeted as something of a judicial rock star on the left-leaning college campus where free tickets for the event were reportedly snapped up within five minutes after they were made available.

Interim UC Berkeley School of Law Dean Melissa Murray opened and closed the wide-ranging discussion by asking Sotomayor questions on stage. Between sit-downs with Murray, however, Sotomayor wandered through the aisles shaking hands and granting multiple hug requests from crowd members while answering pre-screened questions from law students. The following are a handful of highlights of her appearance.

1. What the Justice Looks for in a Clerk

Murray recounted her experience interviewing for a clerkship with Sotomayor in 2000 when the justice was still a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Where Murray had prepared to wow Sotomayor with smart talk about the law, the judge spent the majority of her time asking Murray about herself and her experience being raised by a single mother. Murray said she told the judge stories she hadn’t even shared with her colleagues at law school and spent the train ride back to school thinking she had blown the interview.

“I’m not searching for people that are identical to me,” Sotomayor said. “What I’m looking for are people who have experienced life in some form of richness.” “They have to be committed to making a contribution to the world in some way,” she said.

2. She’s Adopted Some of the Current Washington Parlance

Sotomayor noted that when she was going through the nomination process there were a number of newspaper articles claiming that she lacked the intellectual bona fides for the gig.

“Fake news,” said Murray, drawing laughs.

“Alternative facts,” chimed Sotomayor, eliciting a roar from the crowd.

Sotomayor, however, quickly changed the tone of the conversation by pointing out that the articles about her intellect and statements by a Yale law professor who said that she’d never write an important Supreme Court opinion caused her to question her abilities. She called becoming a district court judge earlier in her career “the most terrifying event of my life.”

“I was convinced I was going to fail,’ she said. She said the possibility of failure resulted in her working 12 to 14 hours per day, seven days a week for her first two years on the bench, something she said she repeated when elevated to higher courts.

“I’m not the smartest person in that Supreme Court,” Sotomayor said. “But I give myself credit for perhaps having a vision of how the law affects people and letting that guide me to what I think are the right answers in the law.”

3. Eight Is Not Enough

Sotomayor said that since Justice Antonin Scalia passed away last year, she’s been more likely to jump in with the first question.

“I was filling the dead space during the arguments,” Sotomayor said. With Scalia around, he was normally the first justice to jump in and ask questions, she said. “What began to happen is that lawyers would get out there, and they’d be talking, and they’d get anxious.”

“And I would jump and start the ball rolling,” she said.

Sotomayor posited that there are likely more arguments now where the parties are left with additional time at the end of their presentations. “There is an appreciable difference between eight and nine. There is a rhythm to the question-asking,” she said.

She also said the court is trying to reach consensus, noting there have been relatively few split 4-4 decisions from the eight-judge court. Still, she said the drive to compromise is not without drawbacks.

“It’s not always good to come to a compromise that avoids a big issue,” Sotomayor said. “Because if we avoid a big issue it means an issue is still divided across the country. The reason we take a case is to settle an issue. And if we don’t settle it, there’s not an answer.”

4. She Considered “Nino” a Friend

By now it’s no secret that justices on the left wing of the court were admirers of Scalia, no matter how much they jousted with him judicially. Sotomayor on Thursday called Scalia a “big personality” and said “he was fun.” She also pointed out that she actually agreed with Scalia 67 percent of the time.

“We both are very passionate about the law, about the Constitution and about our system of government,” she said. Although she and Scalia might disagree on an answer to a particular legal question, she said they “never ever doubted each other’s good will and we never ever doubt each others commitment to do the right thing.”

5. She Has Uncompromising Style

The early-goings in the presentation were interrupted by minor sound glitches as Sotomayor’s dangling earrings banged into her headset microphone whenever she shifted her head. A technician came out and whispered in her ear about the problem and convinced her to remove the earrings as Murray provided cover.

“It’s the earrings. I know. I know,” said Murray good-naturedly, noting that the two had run into the problem before.

“I’ve been taught to wear close-cropped earrings,” said Sotomayor, pausing. “ I like big earrings,” she said, eliciting a yelp from the crowd.

The exchange, having come after Sotomayor talked about keeping an open mind to others, allowed the justice to deliver a second punch line: “I’m willing to change, but not in everything.”   

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