Former Classmate Recalls Sotomayor

  • Playlist
  • Download
  • Embed
    Embed <iframe src="http://www.npr.org/player/embed/104562373/104562906" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no">
  • Transcript

Stephen Carter, professor of law at Yale University, went to school with Sonia Sotomayor, President Obama's nominee for the Supreme Court. Carter offers his insight on what Sotomayor was like as a law student and what perspectives she brought to law at the time.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And now to the other legal story of the day, and we're going to get some insight into President Obama's Supreme Court pick. Sonia Sotomayor attended Yale Law School with Stephen Carter. Carter is now a professor of law at Yale. He stayed in touch with Sotomayor and teaches some of her rulings in his law classes.

He's also the author of several books, including "Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby," and the best-selling novel, "The Emperor of Ocean Park." He says one of her talents was finding a clear route through competing theories.

Professor STEPHEN CARTER (Yale University Law School): One of the things that I remember about Sonia going all the way back to law school is that she suffers fools. That is to say that she is willing to listen in a thoughtful and respectful way, even to people who disagree with her, perhaps sharply, even when perhaps when they don't know what they're talking about.

So she has a wealth of different kinds of legal experience and at the same time, has an attitude of mind that makes her, I think, someone who listens very seriously to those who disagree with her.

NORRIS: What do you remember about her from law school? What kind of student was she?

Prof. CARTER: Anyone who talks about Sonia from law school, one of the first things they'll mention is that she loved to argue. And I don't mean argue in the modern name-calling sense. I meant she loved to sit down and thrash out a difficult legal topic. And that was fun for her to sit around and argue about these things, sometimes for extended periods of time, often not so much about the hot-button constitutional law issues, but often about seemingly abstruse questions of corporate law or tax law.

And again, when you disagreed with her, that was never threatening to her. She was happy to sit there and listen to your reasons. And if you persuaded her, she'd change her mind, just like if she'd persuade you, which she often did, you'd change your mind.

NORRIS: Those who are close to President Obama say that he, in making this selection, was looking for someone who had the intellectual firepower and the grit to go up against Antonin Scalia, in particular. Can you imagine that conversation?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. CARTER: Well, you know, I think that Sonia has the firepower, she has the grit. But we shouldn't rush to assume that she would always be against Scalia. I think what we have to imagine, if we think of the two of them talking, is there'd be some controversial issue that would arise. And he would set forth, with all of that fire and rhetoric, what he believes. And she would ignore the rhetoric and ignore the fire, and look at the argument and see if it worked. And if the argument worked, she might agree with him.

I think what Sonia will not do as a justice - a lot of the justices nowadays have started this process of having these little footnotes almost mocking or deriding the opinions of the other justices. That's a very bad thing for the court, and I cannot imagine Sonia Sotomayor getting involved in that. And in that sense, I think she may actually bring a higher standard of comedy, of respect for others, of collegiality than may be on the court right now.

NORRIS: She's racked up a lot of awards. She was summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, and yet on her way to this nomination, when she was actually considered among the short list of people that President Obama was considering, there were those who questioned her intellect. Were you surprised by that?

Prof. CARTER: I was disgusted by that. I think it is a terrible thing to look at someone who was Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude at Princeton and graduated Yale Law School and was on the Law Journal and say, oh, I think this person is not intellectually up to the job.

And, you know, it's funny in a way. The first black nominee to the Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall, people said he's not intellectually up to the job. The second black nominee, Clarence Thomas, they said he's not intellectually up to the job. The first Latin nominee, they said she's not up to the job. I hate to say there's a pattern developing here, but it's very peculiar, in a way, that this keeps coming up at these particular moments.

No one can look at her body of work, at her resume and at the remarkable opinions she has written as a judge, look at them fairly and say that in any sense she's anything but one of the best legal minds on the Courts of Appeals in the United States. I think it's clear when you actually take the time to read her opinions.

NORRIS: Stephen Carter, good to talk to you. Thank you very much for your time.

Prof. CARTER: Always a pleasure. Thank you.

NORRIS: That's Professor Stephen Carter. He's the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale University.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Obama Chooses Sotomayor For Supreme Court

In Depth

  • Playlist
  • Embed
    Embed <iframe src="http://www.npr.org/player/embed/104530389/104538110" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no">
  • Playlist
  • Embed
    Embed <iframe src="http://www.npr.org/player/embed/104530389/104580585" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no">

Sonia Sotomayor

Age: 54; Born June 25, 1954, in New York, N.Y.

  

Experience: Nominated by President Clinton in 1997 as U.S. Court of Appeals judge for the 2nd Circuit, 1998-present; U.S. District Court judge for the Southern District of New York, 1992-98; private practice, New York City, 1984-92; assistant district attorney, Manhattan, 1979-84

  

Education: B.A., Princeton University, 1976; J.D., Yale Law School, 1979.

  

Quote (from 1997 nomination hearing): "I don't believe we should bend the Constitution under any circumstance. It says what it says. We should do honor to it."

'Where Policy Is Made'

Critics point to this comment by Judge Sonia Sotomayor at a 2005 forum at Duke University School of Law, where she talked about why public interest groups like to hire lawyers who have been appeals court clerks:

  • Playlist
  • Embed
    Embed <iframe src="http://www.npr.org/player/embed/104530389/104532917" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no">

'I Did One Thing Really Wrong'

  • Playlist
  • Embed
    Embed <iframe src="http://www.npr.org/player/embed/104530389/104532918" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no">

President Obama on Tuesday nominated U.S. Circuit Judge Sonia Sotomayor to serve on the Supreme Court, tapping the daughter of Puerto Rican parents to succeed retiring Justice David Souter and become the first Hispanic to serve on the high court.

Calling Sotomayor "an inspiring woman," Obama said that he looked not only at intellect and the ability to be impartial, but at life experience and the ability to relate to ordinary Americans in choosing Sotomayor as his nominee.

At a White House news conference, Sotomayor thanked the president for "the most humbling honor" of her life. "My heart today is bursting with gratitude," she said.

If confirmed by the Senate, the 54-year-old judge will bring nearly 17 years of experience on the federal bench and a history of bipartisan appeal to the high court. She was first appointed to federal bench in the Southern District of New York in 1992 by President George H.W. Bush and was named to the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals by President Bill Clinton in 1998.

Hispanic Groups Laud Choice

Obama said Sotomayor has more experience as a judge than any of the justices had when they were nominated for their positions on the high court.

Hispanic groups lauded the president's choice. "The Supreme Court should reflect the diverse population of the United States to ensure that our nation's highest court understands the unique circumstances of all Americans," said Brent Wilkes, national executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens.

If confirmed, Sotomayor will join Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as the second woman on the current court and the third in history. Sotomayor, like the retiring Souter, is expected to vote with the court liberals.

Republicans are not expected to put up much of a fight against the nomination. Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine said Republicans would have a difficult time taking on a judge that was first appointed to the federal bench by Republican.

"She's been pretty carefully vetted and analyzed already, so I would find it unusual if they were to decide to try to take her on," Kane said.

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele said the upcoming court vacancy provides an opportunity to discuss the role the Supreme Court has in the daily lives of Americans.

"Republicans look forward to learning more about federal appeals court judge Sonia Sotomayor's thoughts on the importance of the Supreme Court's fidelity to the Constitution and the rule of law," Steele was quoted saying on the RNC Web site.

Republicans Want Time For Debate

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said his colleagues will treat Sotomayor fairly but want time to debate her qualifications.

"We will thoroughly examine her record to ensure she understands that the role of a jurist in our democracy is to apply the law even-handedly, despite their own feelings or personal or political preferences," McConnell said in a statement posted on his Web site.

Sotomayor predicted senators would come to see her as an ordinary person who has had some extraordinary opportunities.

"I hope that as the Senate and American people learn more about me, they will see that I am an ordinary person who has been blessed with extraordinary opportunities and experiences," Sotomayor said.

During the East Room announcement, the president cited Sotomayor's educational accomplishments at Princeton University — where she graduated summa cum laude in 1976 — and Yale University Law School. He also said her stint trying criminal cases as an assistant district attorney in Manhattan after her graduation from Yale Law School, corporate law experience and time as a trial judge gave her an edge because she has seen the judicial system from many perspectives.

One of her most prominent rulings came in 1995, when she sided with Major League Baseball players in a labor strike that had led to the cancellation of that season's World Series.

"Over a distinguished career that spans three decades, Judge Sotomayor has worked at almost every level of our judicial system, providing her with a depth of experience and a breadth of perspective that will be invaluable as a Supreme Court justice," Obama said.

The president also said he was moved by her inspirational personal story.

Sotomayor was raised in a housing project in New York's South Bronx by Puerto Rican parents who came to the United States during World War II. Her father was a factory worker who had a third-grade education and spoke no English. He died when she was 9, a year after she was diagnosed with Type 1, or juvenile, diabetes.

Sotomayor said she was strongly influenced by her mother, who served in the Women's Army Corps and often worked two jobs to support Sotomayor and her brother, Juan.

"I have often said that I am all I am because of her, and I am only half the woman she is," Sotomayor said, recognizing her mother and other family members seated in the audience as the president announced her nomination.

An Upward Career Path

Obama said the couple believed in the American dream and the power of education. Sotomayor attended Catholic school and went on to attend Princeton and Yale.

From 1984 until her appointment to the bench, Sotomayor practiced international business law at the New York-based firm of Pavia & Harcourt LLP. There, she focused on intellectual property issues and litigation and arbitration of commercial and commodity export trading cases, according to her appeals court biography.

Later, Sotomayor became a member of the 2nd Circuit Task Force on Gender, Racial and Ethnic Fairness in the Courts, which was established in 1993 to examine the effect of bias on court employees and litigants. She has also remained active in legal education, serving as an adjunct professor at New York University School of Law from 1998-2007 and as a lecturer-in-law at Columbia Law School since 1999.

She has also served on the Board of Directors of the State of New York Mortgage Agency, the New York City Campaign Finance Board, the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund and the Maternity Center Association.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.