Justice Sotomayor Pays a Visit to Washington University
On April 5, over 3,000 people — a combination of undergrads, law students, faculty and community members — lined up outside the Athletic Complex doors to attend Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s public discussion with Chancellor Andrew Martin. The line stretched along Fraternity Row, past the length of Mudd field and to the doors of Olin Library. One student grabbed a lawn chair from Mudd field, stopping to sit every few feet as the line inched forward.
Inside the AC, the varsity basketball court had been transformed with a rolled-out gray carpet, white folding chairs and a black velvet curtain. As Sotomayor walked down the aisle, flanked by large guards, the crowd greeted her with a standing ovation.
Sotomayor and Martin were introduced by junior Sarah Del Carmen Camacho and Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs, Dr. Anna Gonzalez, to more applause.
“Deep down inside, [Martin] is really geeking out, because his research is actually on the Supreme Court,” Gonzalez said.
The packed gym and buzz of excitement that ran through the crowd signaled that Martin wasn’t the only one thrilled by Sotomayor’s presence. The justice’s first words were in reference to the audience’s enthusiasm.
“It’s amazing,” she said, gesturing out towards the sea of eager faces.
Martin started off by asking Sotomayor for advice on cultivating “a deep sense of self-awareness,” a practice that has aided the justice on her path to success. In her answer, where Sotomayor emphasized the importance of self-reflection to her academic and judicial journey, she exuded intelligence through her calm and perfectly constructed mini-monologues. She added witty quips throughout, drawing genuine laughs from the crowd.
Sotomayor also spoke extensively about her family, specifically her mother, Celina and paternal grandmother, Mercedes. Her most treasured piece of advice from these women, she said, could be applied to any vocation: “Understand how important your obligation is to bettering the world,” she said.
Sotomayor lost her mother on July 25, 2021. “It is a horrific loss,” she said. In her memoir, “My Beloved World,” Sotomayor describes her mother, who was working toward a degree to be a registered nurse, studying long hours alongside her school-aged children. This ethic is one Sotomayor adopted, and she credits it for getting her far in life.
After three questions, Sotomayor stood up, telling Martin: “You know, now, it’s my time to get up and walk around.” As she descended the stairs to where students and community members were seated, she requested that no one stand up or make any sudden movements.
“These guys up here? The big guys with stuff around their waist?” she joked, gesturing to her armed security. “They’re here to protect you from me.”
Four students had been selected to ask Sotomayor questions. Junior Raevyn Ferguson asked, “How do we, as minorities, trust in the justice system knowing it has failed us in the past?”
Sotomayor responded with empathy, noting that the Supreme Court has a history of making decisions that continue the oppression of minority groups.
“By definition we will be a flawed nation. We are working towards a more perfect nation. We are not there yet,” she said.
Sotomayor also assured Ferguson that she was continually pushing for justice for all groups, noting her powerful position on the Supreme Court.
“I am here working as hard as I can,” Sotomayor said.
A student at the Brown School of Social Work, Kimberly Céspedes Torres, asked Sotomayor about her identity and experiences as a Latina woman and how that factored into her job and decision-making process.
Sotomayor answered that her experiences and identity cannot be separated from her sense of self. She also emphasized that it was not all she was.
“If you look at me and say, ‘Sonia is only a Latina,’ I’m insulted,” she said. “I’m something more than just one little piece of who I am.”
Sotomayor, above all else, emphasized that actions and motivation matter most. “To become anything in this world,” she said, “you have to work hard.” She also advised minority students to ignore any accusations of getting privileged opportunities, specifically on the topic of affirmative action.
“You don’t judge a person by who opens the door. You judge them by what they did when they [got] through the door,” she said.
The event lasted just over an hour, and Sotomayor exited the way she came–– surrounded by guards and to wild applause.
“This is one of the days that will go down in the history of Washington University and certainly one that no one in this audience will ever forget,” Martin said.