Advice from Sonia Sotomayor

The Supreme Court justice talks about agreeing to disagree, diversity of experience, and fallibility in a Tufts podcast

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor began her unlikely journey to the nation’s highest court growing up poor in the Bronx, where she was born and raised by a single mother. She became the first Latina to sit on the Supreme Court when she was appointed in 2009.

In this episode of Tell Me More, Tufts students have a wide-ranging conversation with Justice Sotomayor as she addresses a crowd of almost 3,000 at the university in September, sharing a variety of advice and insights about the need for diversity of life experiences on the Court, the power of confidence, and the importance of listening to others, even if we don’t agree with them.

CAROLINA MCCABE: Hi, I’m Carolina McCabe and I’m a first-year, planning on studying civic studies and international relations.

SONIA SOTOMAYOR:  You already know I like what you’re studying.

MCCABE: Do you think that greater diversity in federal and state court system is important?

SOTOMAYOR: Yes, I think it’s very important to have diversity on the Supreme Court, but not the kind that most of you are thinking about. I don’t think it’s as important—although very important—to have gender, racial, and ethnic diversity on the Court. We’re not religiously diverse enough yet. We have one Protestant, three Jews, and the rest are Catholics, myself included. I am more worried about the lack of experience diversity on the Supreme Court. We have no justice with criminal law experience. We have no justice with environmental experience. We have only one civil rights lawyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. All right?

Now, women’s issues are critical—don’t minimize it—but we have so many different civil rights questions today, not just special needs. To me, the Court needs those perspectives, not because they are going to control the outcome of any case or any issue, but because the different perspectives enrich the conversation we have. When people can bring in their life experiences and at least explain an argument, even if the others don’t accept it, then at least you know that everybody’s perspective has been aired in the room.

I was a state prosecutor, and in private practice I represented basically the Fortune 500 companies of Europe. And I defended them most of the time. All right? I went to Catholic school, not public school. I was raised by a single mother; my dad wasn’t around. Who could tell how any one experience influences any one judgment I make?

I’m an amalgam of all of my life experiences, just like every one of you are. You’re not a person who wears glasses alone. You’re not a person who likes blue. You’re a whole human being, and every experience gives you a different perspective and a different feeling about these things. And so for me, I don’t value diversity for the sake of diversity. I value it for its contributions to the conversation.

We are making the most important legal decisions that affect your lives every single day. If you don’t believe law affects you every day, please remember: when you stop at the red light, why are you doing that? Because the law says you have to. Smart law. But there are so many other laws that control your lives in ways you don’t consciously perceive, but which are affecting you directly. You want the people involved in interpreting the laws that are passed to have as many different life perspectives as possible, in the hopes that we won’t miss something important.

And by the way, that doesn’t mean we’re infallible. As many of you know, I dissent a lot. But it gives us a better shot when there’s diversity.       

SOTOMAYOR: Go ahead, ask your question, sweetie. I’m listening.

RABIA: What advice do you have for students, specifically women of color, that are looking to go into public service but often feel overshadowed or ignored in these spaces?

SOTOMAYOR: Well . . . I’m trying to say this in a nice way. And maybe there isn’t. When I was in law school, one of my friends said to me, “I love you, Sonia, because you argue like a man.” And I looked at him and I said, “Rudy, should I punch you out? What in the world made you say something so stupid?” And he looked at me, and he said, “Well, you know, women—when they ask a question in the classroom—will always say to the professor, ‘Professor, have you thought of this?’ Or, ‘I don’t know if this makes any sense.’ Or, ‘Maybe I could be wrong.’” It’s qualified, right? He says, “A man always just jumps in and says, ‘Aw, you’re saying that, but I don’t think that’s right.’” Listen to your next classroom discussion. And that’s what you’re going to hear.

Well, I think we do feel not heard, and I think we feel not heard because we don’t make ourselves be heard, because we are tentative in our presentations, because we often are unsure of ourselves and don’t know how to take command of a room. I’m a Supreme Court justice, but you’re listening to me because my voice projects, doesn’t it? Because I modulate it. I’m not monotone. Because I have a presence in which I show you, “Hey! Listen to me.” I do intimidate some lawyers.

My point is: When you are going to be in a room, you have to be thoroughly prepared. You have to be confident of yourself, even if you’re not. And sometimes you just have to practice being confident. You have to sit there and force them to listen by the persuasiveness of your argument and by its clarity. I said I wasn’t sure you were going to like the answer. And even with all of that, I can’t convince some of those guys to vote my way a lot of times.

So, it’s not like it’s always going to work, but I think we have a better chance when we believe in ourselves, and believe that we have something important to say. That confidence is 90 percent of what convinces people that others are right. How many of you have been in a room with a real bully, who by emphatic statement pushes people to do things? I don’t want to be that person, but notice the trait that makes people respond.

JOSE MARTINEZ: You make me really proud of being Latino, so I’m really happy for you to be here.

SOTOMAYOR: Thank you.

MARTINEZ: My name is Jose Martinez. I’m probably a poly sci major, but we’ll see. So, my question is: What were the emotions and thoughts that went through your head when you were selected as the first Latina justice? Did you feel like you were changing the norms in a certain way of what a Supreme Court justice looks like for younger kids like me?

SOTOMAYOR: I was scared witless of going to the Supreme Court. During the nomination process, there were certain articles that said I wasn’t smart enough. And there were certain anonymous people who were complaining that I wasn’t very nice in the courtroom. Now, all of my colleagues on the Second Circuit came out publicly and said the allegations were not true. But they hurt. And they hurt deeply because I had spent a lifetime, I thought, building up a positive reputation. And I actually paused and thought to myself, “Should I be doing this?” I actually considered pulling out of the nomination process.

I talked to one friend, who then talked to other friends. I’ve forgiven her, but it took me a while to do that. And one of those people came up to me and said, “Stop feeling sorry for yourself. This is just not about you. It’s about”—her daughter was eight years old. “It’s about my eight-year-old daughter, and her being able to see someone like us in a position of power.” And I realized that she was right. I had made it about me. And I realized not only that that was selfish, because when you do things for yourself, you lose sight of the value of what you’re doing. And so, at that moment I stayed in, and you know what happened, and where I am.

Now, I forewarn you, one of these days, I’m going to write an opinion you don’t like. If I spend a lifetime not doing that, then I’m doing something wrong as a judge, because I don’t write opinions based on what I think the answer should be. I write opinions on what I think the law says they should be.

Remember something. One of the things that happens to everyone is that idols, including your parents, eventually become human, don’t they? Most children, at some point, get upset when they realize mommy and daddy have flaws. Well, the same thing with the idols you have made. I’m a human being. I’m here to show you how human I am. I make mistakes, and so does the Court. We are fallible.

Even though the saying is: We’re not right because we’re right, and we’re not infallible because we’re right, we’re right because they tell us we can be right. We’re the last word in a lot of things, but for me, I understand that, and I beg those who get to know me to remember, always, I am a human being, just like you. And I’m not perfect. Neither are you. None of us are, but we can still try to do our very best. And we can still try to help in every way we can, knowing that we’re imperfect. Thank you.

LIDYA WOLDEYESUS: My name is Lidya Woldeyesus and I’m a sophomore studying political science and civics studies. Throughout your incredible career, you have been an outspoken judge—and justice now. How have you continued to stay connected to your community, roots, and values, even when it’s not easy?

SOTOMAYOR: You know something? I’m here, right? I’m here because we live a rather monastic experience. I’ve got this beautiful office in Washington, D.C. I’ve got seven people who work for me directly, a whole court house that indirectly helps my office, and the other eight justices have the same thing. We all have our little fiefdoms, our little places where we spend day in and day out, and day in and day out; it can get monastic and isolating. And I know that. It’s one of the reasons I’ve chosen to speak to groups that a lot of my colleagues don’t traditionally speak to.

So I come to colleges, but I also go to high schools. I’ve gone to grammar schools, both middle school and primary schools. I’ve sat with the Head Start program, a bunch of kids. One little boy was sitting there with me, and we’re playing together, and he reaches behind him to get something, and he sees my picture, which was on the side of his cabinet. And he looks at the picture, and looks at me, looks at the picture, looks at me, and then says, “You’re her.” He had no idea who I was. They had talked to him about me, but I was a figure that teachers talked about. That reminded me of being human.

And so for me, my outreach is to the larger community, because I do want to stay grounded. And I do want to stay a part of all of you, because if I’m going to render rulings or participate in rendering rulings that are going to affect you, I want to know how. So I do spend a lot of time, and that includes in a lot of different communities, just not in the Latino community in isolation.

I go to Puerto Rico every year, I do stuff there. I certainly do some things that are related to my culture, and to my life within my culture. You know, I went to Puerto Rico and saw Lin-Manuel . . . Hamilton. That was pretty cool, OK? And I go to bilingual programs. I do all sorts of things. All of my books—all four of my books—are immediately translated from English to Spanish and published on the same day. That is so, so rare, because I want to ensure that kids like me, who didn’t speak English first, can have access to materials that other kids are reading. And so that’s why I do it, OK?

But you asked me how? You have to make the effort. It doesn’t just happen on its own. You have to take the time. I’ve always said to people who are busy, and that’s all of you, you’re all in college. It’s so easy when you’re in college, maybe to consider, maybe I won’t go home for this holiday. I’ve got something more fun to do, or I want to study something. Well, those holidays are really important to your families, and those times are memories that will carry you in your old age when they’re not around anymore.

You know, the holidays that I went back and spent with my grandmother; she’s gone now, I can’t do that anymore. But I still carry them here, and every Christmas Eve, the day she died—I was with her. I had come from college, and didn’t leave the hospital for three days, and she died on the third. I’ll never regret doing that. You have to make time for the people you love. And you have to sometimes balance the competitions in your life and decide priorities.

I know for me that I’ve learned very important lessons in life. Death. Illness. Weddings. Disparate things, right? They’re the three most important things in people’s lives. If you’re a family member, or you’re a friend, and you’re present at those three things, you will be loved forever, because that defines people’s understanding of you caring enough to make time for them when life is either the most joyous, or the most difficult. And so that’s how I do it.    

PETER SMILEY: My name is Peter Smiley. I’m a first-year, planning on studying CS—computer science—at Tufts. I was wondering how you manage relationships and interact with other Supreme Court justices who might have different political views?

SOTOMAYOR: The one thing I know about every single Justice, myself included, is that every one of us shares one passion: the Court. Every one of us is devoted to that institution and what it represents in our system of government. We all revere the Constitution. We all believe in our republican form of government. We all care equally deeply about doing the best job we can to uphold those values.

We may differ in how we believe, and what we believe is the best answer to do that. But I don’t mistake our differences as reflecting ill will on their part. It is a real conversation that we have. And our differences are there to show us that there are no clear answers, that we have to really work at coming up with right answers.

It is, I fear, too easy for people to fail to listen when what they’re hearing is different than what they think. The impulse is to think the other person’s mistaken. It’s much harder to keep an open mind and respectfully listen to each other. Most of the time, when we do, we can identify the chasm, the fault line that separates us.

And it’s much more easy when you can do that out of respect than when you assume that because someone disagrees with you, they’re bad people. They’re not. They have reasons for why they disagree. Sometimes the reasons may not seem compelling to you, because you value something else more, but if you deal with people out of respect, you can disagree agreeably. I do believe that today our politicians have forgotten how to do that. And it’s my prayer, like I think the rest of you, that they figure out a way to do that. But I think that you guys should set the example.

Good luck to you.

HOST: Thanks for listening to this episode of Tell Me More. Please subscribe and rate and review us wherever you get your podcasts—and to be the first to hear about new episodes, please follow Tufts University on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. We’d also welcome your thoughts on the series. You can reach us at That’s T-U-F-T-S dot E-D-U. Tell Me More is produced by Anna Miller, Julie Flaherty, Dave Nuscher, and Katie McLeod Strollo. This episode was edited by 5 to 9 Media and Anna Miller. Web production and editing support provided by Taylor McNeil. Our theme music is sourced from De Wolfe Music. And my name is Patrick Collins. Until next time – be well.

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