Saying she was reluctant to give advice to 20-somethings because they probably wouldn’t listen, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor offered it anyway to a packed crowd of 1,200 at the University of Washington on Monday.
Candid and funny, Sotomayor talked about how hard it can be to arrive at a decision as a court justice, hinted at her distaste for the way money drives politics, agreed that the Supreme Court is probably still “the most moral institution” of government and offered advice about dealing with prejudice and stereotypes.
When she was done, she waded into the crowd and posed for photos with groups of grinning students, although she acknowledged that doing so would probably drive her security officers crazy.
Her appearance at the UW’s Husky Union Building ballroom was part of a book tour for “My Beloved World,” her 2010 autobiography about growing up in the Bronx, the daughter of poor immigrant Puerto Rican parents. She was scheduled to speak later in the evening at Town Hall Seattle.
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UW Provost Ana Mari Cauce asked the questions, which had been submitted earlier by students. Sotomayor surprised the audience by asking each questioner to stand up and be recognized before she gave her answer, making the interview seem less formal and more personal.
Dressed in a crimson jacket, cream-colored blouse and black skirt, Sotomayor was hobbling a little from what she described as a knee injury.
She told students to sample lots of different fields, but to settle on the work they found most meaningful.
“The work you do the best is the work you love,” she said. “The greatest contribution you can make is figuring out what you think is important to you, what kind of work will satisfy you, what kind of work will make you feel meaningful, what kind of work will make a contribution to improving something that you think is significant.”
She told students to develop a community of good friends but also seek out people from different backgrounds and take classes in unfamiliar subjects.
Sotomayor said she regretted not asking more questions of her college friends while she was still in school, which would have helped her understand more about their lives.
One student asked what barriers still needed to be broken to improve the representation of women and minorities in government.
“Money,” Sotomayor said to laughter. “No, seriously. Look at what’s happening in politics. What’s talking the loudest is money.” For more minorities and women to gain more of a foothold in government decisions, “we’re going to have to work the political system at the highest level,” she said.
The first Latina to be appointed to the Supreme Court, Sotomayor talked of the hurt she felt during her confirmation hearings, when skeptics questioned whether she was smart enough to be a Supreme Court justice. And she also described an incident from her childhood, when the father of one of her friends used a racial epithet to describe Puerto Ricans while she was in the room.
“I don’t let others judge me — I judge me,” Sotomayor said.
Of the others, she said, “frankly, to hell with them.”
Sotomayor told the students that it was important to “find someone in your life who unconditionally loves you,” and that her grandmother was that person. “What gave me my drive is my mother,” she added.
What are you optimistic about? one student wanted to know. Said Sotomayor: “I’m very optimistic about the power of minorities to change the dialogue in this country.”
At the end of the talk, Sotomayor offered to pose for group pictures with students, prompting Cauce to say, “You really are Sonia from the Bronx.”
UW officials believe this may have been the first time that a sitting Supreme Court justice has given a talk at the campus, although it’s possible that Justice William O. Douglas, who grew up in Yakima and went to college at Whitman, visited the UW.
Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @katherinelong.