U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor almost wasn’t the country’s first Hispanic justice, she told a crowd of more than 150 University of Richmond undergraduate and graduate students and Law School faculty at a Tuesday afternoon talk on the college’s Henrico County campus.
“During the nomination process, there were many who said I wasn’t intelligent or smart
enough to be on the court. It was very, very painful to me,” Sotomayor said. So painful, that she almost decided to withdraw her name from consideration. She confided her doubt in a dear friend, who offered her some advice.
“She said ‘This isn’t about you. This is about my daughter. She’s 8 years old, and there’s no Hispanic in a high position of power in the United States of America. Your presence there will give her, and many other children, the possibility of hope.’”
Sotomayor, whom President Barack Obama nominated to the Supreme Court in 2009, fielded questions from students about the framers of the Constitution, the court's role as a social change agent and how she gets along with fellow justices whose opinions on contentious subjects diverge from her own.
A native of New York City's Bronx borough, she was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes at age 7. Her father died when she was 9. She detailed the hardships in My Beloved World, a memoir she wrote during her first three years on the court. Though challenging, her upbringing taught her the importance of empathy as a person and a judge, she said.
Sotomayor is the fourth sitting Supreme Court justice to visit UR in recent years, following Antonin Scalia, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan.
“Our students and faculty spend a great deal of time reading opinions and talking about ‘the court.’ But with all the focus on the court, it’s easy to come to think of it as a disembodied thing. A visit by a justice reminds us that it’s not disembodied at all,” says Wendy Perdue, dean of the UR Law School. “The court is nine people, flesh and blood people.”