Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor discusses importance of impartiality

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Julian Kilchiling/Staff

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When Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor visited campus Thursday, she walked off the stage and into the crowd, answering questions, shaking hands and giving hugs to audience members. Sotomayor said she doesn’t like sitting still.

And this was no surprise to the event organizers at the UC Berkeley School of Law — according Berkeley Law spokesperson Susan Gluss, Sotomayor has done it before. The conversation was moderated by interim Berkeley Law Dean Melissa Murray, who knows Sotomayor well after serving as her clerk in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit.

According to Vice Chancellor for Equity and Inclusion Na’ilah Nasir, who introduced Sotomayor and Murray, the event tickets sold out within five minutes. Sotomayor spoke at Zellerbach Hall for an hour and a half about various topics such as her experience in the Supreme Court, and she gave advice to UC Berkeley students, telling them to keep an open mind as they face challenges.

“Those that disagree with you are not necessarily bad people. … Many of them hold the same values as you,” Sotomayor said during the event. “If you keep an open mind, that means that sometimes they’ll convince you, and sometimes you’ll convince them.”

Gluss said in hosting events such as this, the law school aims to inspire, educate and encourage students to dream big. According to Gluss, there was a sense of camaraderie in the hall, which showed that Sotomayor connected to the crowd well.

Sotomayor emphasized the importance of remaining impartial in assessing cases as a judge. The justice shared a story with the audience about a case when she felt like she was being too nice to one of the lawyers in the trial. He was in his 80s and had a tremor.

“I asked myself, ‘What was making me so nice to him?’ ” Sotomayor said, as she walked through the audience. “(And) I realized he looked exactly like my grandfather.”

Sotomayor told the audience that her grandfather had Parkinson’s and that she realized she was favoring the lawyer during the trial for this reason. Sotomayor added that she went back into the courtroom and was able to counter her bias because she was aware of it.

“There’s a lot of unconscious things that affect us as judges. We’re human beings,” Sotomayor said during the event. “Always as a judge, be aware of that subconscious. … And you have to sit back and look at it and take control of it.”

Campus sophomore Divya Vijay and junior Suher Adi both said they appreciated Sotomayor’s candid nature and her emphasis on staying true to oneself. Adi referenced a part of the event when Murray joked about Sotomayor’s big earrings, which Murray said always cause technical difficulties with the microphone.

“I like big earrings. … I’m willing to change but not in everything.” Sotomayor said during the event, in response to Murray.

ASUC Senator Zaynab AbdulQadir-Morris said it is very inspirational that the campus brings a diverse set of speakers such as Sotomayor to campus. Such events, AbdulQadir-Morris said, are a good use of the campus’s reputation — she knows students at other campuses who were not able to get Sotomayor to speak there.

“Especially at this time of the semester, where it’s midterms and students feel very discouraged about their own academic trajectory, it’s grounding to hear a woman such as herself,”  AbdulQadir-Morris said. “For myself, as a woman of color, hearing her experiences and her leadership in navigating such a rigid system, it’s transformative.”

Contact Malini Ramaiyer at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @malinisramaiyer.