Associate Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor ’76 returned to the University as part of the “She Roars” conference on Friday afternoon to discuss women’s leadership potential. Her discussion with University President Shirley Tilghman drew a packed crowd of approximately 600 alumni, students, faculty and staff members to Jadwin Gymnasium.
Sotomayor — one of three University alumni currently on the Supreme Court, alongside Samuel Alito ’72 and Elena Kagan ’81 — discussed topics that ranged from her decision to enroll at the University to her philosophy on the modern applicability of the Constitution.
She began by recounting her rise from the South Bronx to the nation’s highest court, including her undergraduate journey at the University, where she was part of the fourth class of women.
Sotomayor admitted that her choice to enroll at the University was not a rational decision.
“I wish I could tell you the reason I ended up here was because I was a diligent student and learned all about Princeton and made an informed decision — I didn’t,” she explained.
Inspired by the 1970 romantic film “Love Story” and prompted by the guidance of a good high school friend, she decided to apply to Ivy League schools, Sotomayor explained.
Nevertheless, her choice to attend the University proved to be the best decision she could make, she said.
“In many ways [Princeton] turned out to be exactly the perfect place for me,” Sotomayor said. “I was able to find professors who helped me grow, and that is what catapulted me to the rest of my life.”
After leaving the University, she faced subtle but impactful discrimination in the legal profession, she said.
Sotomayor recounted a particular instance in which attorneys asked the men with whom she was seated whether they were the prosecutors, ignoring her presence. She said these types of experiences reminded her of the unequal treatment of and attitude toward women in the occupation.
“It takes both yourself and people around you to support breaking those barriers down,” she said. “Those things people don’t realize have an effect on you. They can be demoralizing,” she later added.
Nevertheless, Sotomayor managed to overcome these “glass ceilings” and rise to the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in 1998.
When President Obama called to inform her that he planned to nominate her for the Supreme Court in May 2009, she was surprised and overwhelmed with emotion, she said.
“At any rate, you would think that I would have expected the call, but I didn’t because I just couldn’t believe it would be true. It was so far-fetched — the idea that he would select me — in my own mind that the possibility of it being real just hadn’t entered my mind,” she said.
Tilghman asked Sotomayor if the judicial system had reached a “tipping point” with the confirmation of the fourth female Supreme Court justice, and if that would ease the advancement of women in law.
Sotomayor responded that gender “will always be an issue” in the profession.
“If we’re talking about random selection, you look at the pool, and when the pool gets 50-50 the court should be 50-50,” she said. “As more women predominate in the profession, it will continue to be an issue if the representation doesn’t grow more equally,” she added.
Provost Christopher Eisgruber ’83, a Supreme Court scholar, said he admired Sotomayor’s openness and confidence.
“What was impressive was her willingness to disclose some of the barriers she had faced and how she overcame them,” Eisgruber said. She “was willing to talk about what it was like to be in a position where she wasn’t sure she would succeed,” he noted.
Many audience members said that they appreciated the personal touches throughout the conversation.
“Justice Sotomayor was such a warm and engaging and inspiring speaker,” attendee Lesley Workman ’88 said.
Charity Fesler ’01, an employee with D.C. Public Schools, said she appreciated that Sotomayor did not get bogged down in the “overwhelming” details of her complex career during her talk.
“What meant the most to me was her willingness to think really hard and in a really big-picture way,” she said. “She could have dived into details of cases and into her career, but every time she talked about these things she was talking about movement over time, or how a detail fit into a larger picture.”