BY JAMES FARRELL
When Felix Matos Rodriguez, president of Queens College, asked U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor—who visited the school on Monday—if she believed U.S. colleges are fostering civic engagement, Sotomayor didn’t hold back.
“I don’t think schools—whether they’re middle schools, high schools, colleges and, sometimes, even law schools—are spending enough time inspiring their students to be doers, to take charge of their life and be aware of what civics is about,” Sotomayor said to a packed auditorium at Queens College’s LeFrak Concert Hall.
She suggested that colleges should start organizing students to get out the vote or make it part of curricula for students to know who their local representatives are and meet with them at least once.
For an hour and a half, Sotomayor offered tidbits of wisdom as she fielded questions from Rodriguez and Queens College students. Sotomayor, who made history in 2009 by becoming the first Latina to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, also gave insight into the legal system, discussed her memoir and offered advice to students.
Sotomayor moved about throughout the event, walking along the aisles in the crowd to take pictures with each student who asked a question—and often stopping to snap photos with those who didn’t.
“I think it brings me closer to the people in the back,” she said of her migratory style.
Throughout the event, Sotomayor reflected on the ubiquity of law in life.
“Laws affect you every single day—in ways, sometimes, you don’t perceive, in ways you don’t feel are moving you, but they affect you,” she said. “What lawyers do is help people in their relationships in society.”
Sotomayor was asked how she stays impartial in making decisions. She said that the law is more complicated than people may realize.
“We’re being asked about issues that are not black and white,” she said. “People have this innate desire to believe that the law is clear.”
The law denies “unreasonable” search and seizures, for instance. However, “unreasonable” can have many different meanings, she suggested.
She said that judges have to acknowledge their emotions toward specific cases in order to keep their biases in check.
“You can’t do a human activity, and judging is a human activity, without having human emotion,” she said. “A lot of the things we feel, a lot of the prejudices we hold, are emotions that we don’t control because we don’t recognize them.”
When asked how minority women can pursue leadership roles, Sotomayor said that young women need to unlearn the bad habits instilled by society—that women shouldn’t speak up, for instance, or should speak with softer voices. Those habits, she said, form at a young age and often in the classroom.
“All of the things that we think are us, if they’re not helping you, you can change them,” she said.
To the freshmen in the room, Sotomayor offered advice.
“Don’t take courses only in the things that you think attract you,” she said. “Take classes in the things that might scare you.”
She reflected on taking art and religion classes in her early college years and being able to better engage the world as a result. The liberal arts, she said, were invaluable.
“A liberal-arts education is supposed to teach you what you don’t know,” she said. “That’s what learning should be.”
Sotomayor said that she became interested in the law by watching Perry Mason. If she hadn’t gone into law, she said that she would have pursued a career in business, an area where she believes a lot of good work can be done.
“What we need in our communities is economic growth,” she said.
Reach James Farrell at (718) 357-7400 x 127, firstname.lastname@example.org or @farrellj329.