Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor helps launch NYU Law’s Center for Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging

The launch event for NYU Law’s Center for Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging on November 10, featuring US Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, came just two days after the conclusion of a presidential campaign that brought to the forefront of the national conversation many of the issues with which the center intends to engage.

The new center will provide a hub for faculty and students pursuing research related to diversity and inclusion; foster an inclusive NYU Law community through extracurricular activities and cooperation with student affinity groups and other key Law School institutions; and contribute to the broader national and international dialogue. In his introduction of the event, Dean Trevor Morrison expressed pride in NYU Law’s inclusive heritage as one of the first law schools to admit women and to implement a nondiscrimination policy for sexual orientation.

The conversation between Sotomayor and Kenji Yoshino, Chief Justice Earl Warren Professor of Constitutional Law and director of the new center, was based largely on her bestselling memoir, My Beloved World. Yoshino asked Sotomayor about a compliment she once received for “arguing like a guy.” Unpacking what that stereotype meant, Sotomayor said, “To be an effective lawyer, you do have to have a certain amount of bravado… a certain sense of understanding how to control the space you’re in.” Sotomayor recalled how, when she taught a course at NYU Law on trial advocacy with fellow adjunct professor John Siffert, they used acting techniques to help students speak more effectively.

Referring to Sotomayor’s renowned generosity, evident in acts such as sending a congratulatory letter to Damaris Hernández ’07 when Hernández became the first Latina partner at Cravath, Swaine & Moore (before the two had ever met), Yoshino asked how the justice found the time to make such gestures and accept so many invitations to speak.

For Sotomayor, it was about remembering where she came from. “Every time I feel overwhelmed and want to say no… I sit back and I stop and I reflect that I wouldn’t have gotten where I am without the time busy people took to encourage me, to mentor me.”

When the topic turned to gender, Sotomayor revealed that she had always felt her Latina identity had been more of a career hurdle than being a woman until her judicial nomination processes changed her views.

There has been, she said, an “active preference for men in judicial roles. Good judges were men. You rarely had people defining what made a good judge with any of the characteristics that are usually ascribed to women.” Seldom are judges praised for their compassion, she said, but rather for being “thoughtful” or “patient.”

The double standards extend to the Supreme Court, Sotomayor added. “Justice Scalia was ‘penetrating.’ I am ‘aggressive.’… I don’t think I’m any less tough than he was, but I don’t think I’m any more tough than he was.” As a judge of the US District Court for the Southern District of New York, she once encountered a marshal who called her “honey.”

Once the event opened up into a Q&A session with the audience, Sotomayor left the stage and roamed the aisles of standing-room-only Tishman Auditorium with a microphone, pausing to shake hands, place her hand gently on spectators’ shoulders, and pose for photos with students—with or without a hug.

An NYU Law alumna who had once been Sotomayor’s student described her encounters with gender bias in the course of her career and her disappointment that there was not yet a woman president. She asked Sotomayor for advice.

“No matter what happens that we don’t like, we have to pick ourselves up and keep working and doing what we think is right,” said Sotomayor, who offered suggestions on how to change one’s workplace for the better.

The final question came from a young man who had become engaged to his boyfriend only two months before and now worried about his future marriage: “Could you talk about the role of the Court in defending and expanding rights for diverse Americans at a time when they’re so afraid about the way things might be going?”

Pointing out that state governments can confer rights just as the federal government can, Sotomayor reminded him how organizing for causes was a longstanding American tradition whose effect was that “those positive things that people value and want to hold onto are tougher for others to take away.”

As the event concluded, the standing ovation Sotomayor received lasted a full minute.

Posted November 23, 2016