RANDOLPH CENTER – The 111th Supreme Court Justice of the United States paid a whirlwind visit to Vermont this weekend, and judging from the smiles all around, she made quite an impression.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor dined in a quiet back corner of Sarducci’s Italian restaurant in Montpelier Friday with Sen. Patrick Leahy, his wife Marcelle, his sister Mary Leahy and others. She bunked for a restful night at the Inn at Montpelier, and then early Saturday morning, wowed a crowd of several hundred people for nearly 80 minutes at the 15th Annual Women’s Economic Opportunity Conference at Vermont Technical College.
By 10 a.m., accompanied by two watchful secret service agents, she was out a back door of Judd Auditorium and on her way to the airport, leaving behind a standing ovation, a serious buzz and the image of a very eloquent, thoughtful, funny and warm person.
In a question-and-answer session with journalist Fran Stoddard, Sotomayor eschewed the lectern and told stories that captured her tough upbringing in the South Bronx, her education at Princeton and Yale Law School, her ambitions, experience in the law and the bias she felt as a woman and Latino.
“I think stories sort of explain your life and what you are thinking,” she said.
She also spoke her mind, though not about judicial matters or issues before the court.
Sotomayor, 57, told the gathering that she felt the “American dream” – which she gained by becoming a federal judge and then in 2009 a Supreme Court Justice – is harder to achieve today and that gender bias remains a subtle but persistent problem.
Sotomayor, only the third female supreme court justice and the first Latino, credited “the real pathmakers” such as Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who came before her for overcoming overt gender bias. She has had a different experience as part of the “second wave” of women taking up careers as judges, she said, but bias still exists today.
“It is more subtle and more searing in many ways,” she said, saying the problem comes from “expectations of what the perfect employee should be,” a decision that is usually made in the workplace by men.
“That’s a more difficult structural problem. It takes a proactive employer” to deal with, she said.
Citing as an example the different ways an “aggressive” man or woman is viewed in the workplace, she said society still has work to do to change perceptions. She also urged women to be politically active and “let politicians know what priorities are important to you.”
Asked about the quality of the justice system, Sotomayor said, “It’s a problem when it costs more to incarcerate a prisoner than to send a kid to college.”
America was “not going to have a system of justice you’re proud of” when resources for early education, nutrition, access to defense attorneys and rehabilitation programs are being cut back. She decried the fact the justice system has “given up altogether” on the value of rehabilitating and educating prisoners, because of a few highly publicized errors in releasing prisoners.
Relating her own experiences with racial bias, which she said “happen more often than you could imagine,” Sotomayor said bias against women may be harder to address in society because it is so structurally endemic.
“In the end, I do believe that getting past racial and ethnic bias may be easier than getting round gender bias,” she said.
Sotomayor cited hard work, luck and having someone “who has uncritically loved you” as keys to her success. Her mother and grandmother provided the love that gave her confidence to believe she could be a judge.
“My grandmother was the center of the universe,” she said. “I was gifted with extraordinarily strong women.”
Women today face more barriers in the workplace and “there’s no question it’s harder today” to succeed, she said, noting the high cost of a college education and difficulties in the current economy in finding a job.
Sotomayor also said society has created expectations of success that “are so unreal that you are almost doomed to failure.”
She urged women to keep their focus on the values of work and family. “The American dream is possible if you have a dream that’s based in values that are important,” she said.
Asked about her education, she said when she was urged to apply to an “Ivy League” school, she didn’t know what that was. When she got in to Princeton, having been raised in the projects where she spoke mostly Spanish, she struggled, she said.
“I didn’t know what I was getting into,” she said, describing herself as “an alien in a strange land” compared to peers who had gone to private schools and traveled on spring break. After her first year, she spent the summer reading all the “classics” that everyone else had read in high school.
Sotomayor said she survived by grounding herself with activities and people she knew and emerged Phi Beta Kappa at the top of her class.
Sotomayor was sworn in on Aug. 8, 2009, and became the 111th justice on the court, a number attached to her name that tickles her still. “I smile internally, because my grandmother loved playing the numbers,” she said, drawing a big laugh.
Few people gave her a chance to become a judge, let alone a Supreme Court justice. She told about an interview with a public interest law firm after graduating from Yale Law School in 1979. When they asked her where she wanted to be in 20 years, she said, “I want to be a federal district court judge.”
She later learned the lawyer who interviewed her had reported “she’s very smart but a little naive.” But also persistent. She was nominated to the federal bench by President George H.W. Bush in 1991.
Ironically, she said as a child growing up in the South Bronx, she was an avid fan of the Nancy Drew novels and wanted to be a detective when she grew up, but she was told because she had juvenile diabetes, she would not be able to work in law enforcement.
“I, like every nine and a half year old, was devastated. What am I going to do with the rest of my life,” she said.
“Just about that time I found Perry Mason,” she said to laughter. The fictional defense attorney played by actor Raymond Burr on TV in the 1950s and 60s, turned her life in another direction.
“That was my first attraction to the law,” she said, but it was one episode in which there was a female judge that launched her dreams.
“I realized at that moment the most important person in that room was the judge. And I wanted to be the judge,” she said to laughter and applause.