May 2015

Justice Sotomayor’s Gift


By Dorothy J. Samuels ’73

The first time I met Sonia Sotomayor was at a litigation strategy meeting at the Manhattan office of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund (now Latino Justice). She was a member of the organization’s board, and I was there on behalf of the New York Civil Liberties Union, where I was then the executive director. Our groups were collaborating on a case.

It was the early 1980s. We were both young lawyers with large ambitions, hoping to make a positive difference in the world. One of us would rise to the pinnacle of the nation’s judiciary. Spoiler alert: it wasn’t me.

The future justice’s ascent up the judicial ladder began in 1991 when New York’s late, great senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan nominated her for a federal district court seat. He was impressed by her stellar academic record as a Princeton undergraduate and Yale law student, her valuable experience as a private lawyer and former assistant district attorney, and her poise during an interview.

Naturally, Senator Moynihan was also taken by her challenging personal journey as a Puerto Rican from a Bronx public housing project, the diabetic daughter of an overworked nurse and an alcoholic father who didn’t speak English and died when she was nine years old. Recounted with unusual candor and signature warmth and humor in her best-selling 2013 memoir, My Beloved World, Justice Sotomayor’s compelling story of overcoming hardship and achieving her dreams through perseverance and help from mentors came to captivate many millions of Americans after she was named to the Supreme Court by President Obama in 2009, becoming the fourth woman and first Hispanic to serve on the highest court in the land.

With no disrespect for her growing body of well-reasoned majority opinions, concurrences, and dissents, I have come to believe, along with Justice Sotomayor herself, that her most important legacy may lie not in her jurisprudence but rather her worthy non-judicial sideline—namely, being an approachable role model and itinerant life coach to young people throughout the country.

Even before commencing her expansive national book tour, Justice Sotomayor made a concerted effort to fit in as many school visits as she could. Typically, these visits include question-and-answer sessions, where she talks mostly about her life experiences and dispenses advice in large dollops, along with words of encouragement and, sometimes, hugs.

“It is my great hope that I’ll be a great justice and that I’ll write opinions that will last the ages,” she explained to Jodi Kantor of The New York Times for a 2013 profile. “But that doesn’t always happen. More importantly, it’s only one measure of meaning in life. To me, the more important one is my values and my impact on people who feel inspired in any way by me.”

In a conversation last year held before a packed Yale Law School audience and conducted by Judith Resnik ’72, a professor there, Justice Sotomayor, true to form, spoke freely of her low-income background, obstacles she’s faced as a woman of color, and the sense of being “alien,” which, she confided, hasn’t totally left her.

Take risks and don’t be afraid of failure is one of the key lessons Justice Sotomayor tries to impart on her many campus visits. Another is to stay true to your heritage but also reach out to the wider world, for example, by sitting with students from a different background at lunch. Still another prime lesson is the importance of balance—of working hard but still leaving room for relaxed time with friends and having fun. “Life is hard, and if you spend your time worrying about the struggles,” she told an audience in January comprised largely of students, college-age and younger, “you’ll never live it.”

Of course, these are but subsets of her larger, overriding message—in essence, if I could do it, so can you.

Which brings me to Justice Sotomayor’s visit to Bryn Mawr to accept the 2015 Katharine Hepburn Medal. Not many years from now, I fully expect to hear of fabulous accomplishments by Mawrters whose lives were touched that day by something my extraordinary advocacy partner of yore said, or perhaps by just being in her presence.

Dorothy J. Samuels ’73 served on the editorial board of The New York Times from 1984 until her recent departure. In that role, she wrote on a wide array of legal and social policy issues. A graduate of Northeastern University School of Law, she briefly practiced corporate law with a Wall Street firm and also served as executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

Read more on the Hepburn Medal ceremony.
View the a gallery of images from Justice Sotomayor’s visit.