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Justice Sonia Sotomayor brings cases alive in UH visit

Sonia Sotomayor seen with Michael Olivas at Krost Hall holding Astros gear.

Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor received Astros gear as thank you gift for her visit. The Supreme Court justice had a discussion with professor Michael Olivas, followed by a Q&A. | Kathryn Lenihan/The Cougar

For a moment, Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor traded in her Supreme Court robes for “one of the very best gifts” she ever received — an Astros jersey and baseball hat.

The switch happened Friday at the Law Center’s Krost Hall, where hundreds of law students and other attendees heard a discussion between Sotomayor and a UH law professor. In a 45-minute question and answer period, students received personal wisdom from the justice.

“It’s one of those rare opportunities you don’t forget soon,” first-year law student Neil Young said about Sotomayor’s visit, the first appearance by a Supreme Court justice at UH since Sandra Day O’Connor came over a decade ago.

Before the panel discussion, Sotomayor visited with roughly 100 law students and student leaders in a private event, Law Center Dean Leonard Baynes said. He said Sotomayor does not talk about current cases, but she touched the students deeply with her background, which “is so fitting of many of our students.”

“A lot of us respect her opinions and her views on important topics,” said Young, who attended the panel discussion and Q&A but was not part of the private event prior to the discussion. “Hearing about her past and how she’s gotten where she is, through adversity, was impactful.”

Law come to life

Sotomayor stood up after the Q&A with Micahel Olivas, the William B. Bates Distinguished Chair of Law, and began taking questions from current law students. She walked around Krost Hall shaking hands with almost everyone and stopping to take pictures with law students, trailed by one of many security personnel in the room. 

First-year law student Bryce Romero asked Sotomayor how much of an influence having a personal, emotional connection to a case can influence a Supreme Court justice.

Before she answered the question, she walked up to Romero, who was standing in an aisle, and took an unexpected picture with him.

“We are human beings like everybody else. You don’t put on a robe and lose emotion,” Sotomayor said. “If it is something tugging at other people’s hearts, it tugs at our heart.”

Sotomayor added that justices must consciously identify their prejudices and biases or else they  unconsciously apply them to one side of the argument.

First-year law student Laeh Badri was the last to ask Sotomayor a question. Badri asked for any advice Sotomayor had to give for young women working in law.

Sotomayor also took a photo with Badri and said workplace discrimination has gotten better for female lawyers, but it would be worth mulling over whether it would be easier to solve racial discrimination than gender inequality.

Importance of core training

Olivas asked Sotomayor in their discussion what law schools need to do differently. She answered that ethics training needs to happen at the start of students’ law courses and emphasized throughout three-year law programs.

She also said law schools have an obligation to encourage pro bono services.

“I believe in slave labor,” Sotomayor joked about lawyers performing volunteer legal work. She added that students begin to understand its importance if schools force them to perform it initially.

Sotomayor continued in her discussion with Olivas that law students need to have strong foundations in the core courses: taxation, corporate law and estates.

“Everybody has family and friends who die,” Sotomayor said. “You should be able to talk intelligently to family, friends and clients about making sure they protect their families before they die.”

Olivas said that singer-songwriter Prince died without a will. Sotomayor asked the audience how many of them had a will. Less than half of the room raised their hands.

She said everyone should have. “There’s a lot of lawyers in the room.”

‘Seeing a rock star’

“For law students, seeing a Supreme Court Justice is like seeing a rock star. We read the cases, we learn about it and then you get to see the judge who actually wrote the case,” Baynes said. “It brings the case alive.”

Law school alumnus Blaine Larson echoed that sentiment from Baynes. Larson began law school in 2009, the same year Sotomayor was appointed to the Supreme Court, and said he studied her cases in class.

“It puts a human element to cases. Cases are very cold and distant, because you just read a piece of paper,” Larson said. “So it’s interesting to see them come to life a bit when you hear the person who wrote it speak and learn a little bit about their story.”

The Law Center invited Sotomayor to visit three years ago, Baynes said. He said it took years for her to show because Sotomayor has an aggressive travel schedule, but she was able to find time to visit the University this week because she was traveling in Texas.

After the discussion and Q&A were finished, Olivas presented Sotomayor with a red gift bag holding World Series winner gear.

“Now you see why I’ve loved this woman for so long,” Olivas said in his closing remarks.

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