Penn Political Review

We Are the Law

Adam Hersh April 5, 2012 Soapbox Blog 1 Comment on We Are the Law

Supreme Court Justice, baseball savior and Sesame Street star Sonia Sotomayor visited Penn today for the official opening of Golkin Hall, the new law school building. Your faithful-ish correspondent was in the room and got all the juicy quotes. And by juicy I mean inspiring and profound.

In dedicating a new building for Penn Law today, Justice Sotomayor was following in the footsteps of both Justices John Marshall Harlan, Chief Justice Earl Warren, and Attorney General Janet Reno. Good thing, too, because besides her this event had all the slow, painful pomp of convocation without the part where it’s the first day of school. I have no doubt President Amy Gutmann and Dean Michael Fitts do yeoman’s work running this institution, but they were not given their jobs for their speaking skills. Former Poet Laureate and Penn professor Daniel Hoffman — whose presence could be an event in itself — read a few lines of poetry that rather cleverly turned portions of William Penn’s law code into verse. Read aloud, unfortunately, it just sounded like William Penn’s law code.

Luckily, the headliner more than made up for her openers. In a short prepared speech and then an almost hour-long conversation with Dean Fitts, Justice Sotomayor spoke with warmth and feeling. “All of you in the audience have no idea how touching this is,” she said of being able to speak in Irvine Hall. Sotomayor, who also had a scholarship to Penn Law named in her honor today, talked about her life in the law, about the nature of legal education, and about the job of the Court in a way that was consistently relatable. Rather pleasingly, Sotomayor said she twice drew her legal inspiration from Perry Mason. As a juvenile diabetic, Sotomayor said she was crushed to discover that she could not be a detective like Nancy Drew. Law served as an alternative. “In watching Perry Mason, I realized that lawyering indeed involves a lot of detective work,” she said. Later, describing another episode of the show, she said, “The most important person in that room was the judge. And I knew I wanted to be that person.” In other words, were it not for Raymond Burr, we might not have the first Latina justice.

In the most interesting part for law nerds like me, Sotomayor spoke briefly about her approach to judging. Sotomayor describes herself as an “old-school lawyer,” saying, “I’m very capable of arguing theory, but I always start with facts.” She ascribed the focus on the record to her time spent as a trial-court judge. “I am much, much more record-bound than my colleagues,” she said. “It’s a central part of my approach to making decisions about certiorari to actually read the record.”

As the third woman on the Court, Sotomayor provided her perspective on women in law. “Progress has been made,” she said, while reminding the audience that “there are still steps to be taken.” Women today have a much better chance to succeed in the law, she said. “Justice Ginsburg, Justice O’Connor, Judith Kay… they were women who wouldn’t be hired by law firms.” Now, she said, the problem is much less explicit sexism and much more about presentation and subconcious sexism. “If you’re a soft-spoken woman, that’s okay, but you have to practice raising your voice.”

Sotomayor also spoke passionately about service. “No matter what kind of law you practice… you are helping people and institutions with legal issues,” she said. Sotomayor said she often counsels government lawyers to engage in pro bono work outside of their government job. “What you give nine to five doesn’t count as public service, ” she said.

Sotomayor also had a great deal of advice for law students. “I have one professional regret,” said the Supreme Court justice, “and that was making the decision not to clerk.” She continued, “You learn more in one year of clerking than you do in eight years of practice.” And for any law students looking to get that experience with a particular wise Latina, she said exactly what she was looking for. Here, presented never before, is the Justice Sonia Sotomayor guide to Supreme Court clerkship:

1. Get good grades.

2. Have extensive writing experience on a law review or other journal

3. Develop a mentoring relationship with a law professor.

4. Do something important to you.

It’s that easy! I should market this stuff.

Justice Sotomayor worried that the justices “are public figures, but of the kind the public doesn’t really understand.” She said that because of the nature of their work, judges “can’t engage the public in the way they want.” That may be true to some degree (Sotomayor gave no hints as to what the ruling will be in the healthcare case), but if all of the justices present themselves as intelligently and compellingly as Justice Sotomayor did today, then I don’t think there will be much of a problem.

Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons

This week: If you can wait till then, I’ll still have my regular post on Saturday. That’s right, a two-post week. Who loves ya, baby?

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About The Author

Adam Hersh is a junior in the College. He is from New Jersey, and therefore may make fun of New Jersey. You may not.

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