Members of the Brooklyn Bar Association were in for a treat as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor was their guest on Thursday night for an event called “An Evening with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor” in Brooklyn Heights on Thursday.
Justice Sotomayor was very impressed with the 100-plus-year-old Remsen Street headquarters, which packed in about 150 members for the evening. She first met with the group’s officers and directors privately before meeting with the entire membership for a question-and-answer session with co-moderators Aimee Richter and Dawn Cardi.
“I was lucky enough to meet Justice Sotomayor at Dawn’s husband’s birthday party in Brooklyn,” Richter said. “I knew that she was going to be there, and I had imagined all of the things that I was going to say to her — including telling her that when I was a little girl I dreamed of being on the Supreme Court and that she was a role model for me and so many other women.
“Then the big moment arrived,” Richter continued. “She was standing next to me, I smiled and she held out her hand and said, ‘Hi, I’m Sonia.’”
But Richter explained that she realized that bombarding Justice Sotomayor with questions that evening would be too much. Instead, the three (including Cardi) organized this event so that Richter and other members could geek out in a more appropriate location.
The first question asked of Justice Sotomayor was how she was feeling. She reported back that she was doing well but that her shoulder still hasn’t fully regained motion since she broke it last April and had to cancel her initial appearance with the BBA.
The other topics ranged from why she speaks so often with children, the process of hearing cases in the U.S. Supreme Court, her personal life and upbringing — and a few people couldn’t help but ask the Bronx-born justice about the Yankees.
“So far, I’m not impressed with their offseason,” said Justice Sotomayor, who fit in perfectly with the group without pretension, as if she was simply another New York City attorney. “I’m happy they didn’t sign the two big players [Manny Machado and Bryce Harper] because they would cost too much, but they still need pitching. You can’t win without pitching.”
After about 15 minutes, Justice Sotomayor announced that she was tired of sitting down and asked if she could walk around the room as she took questions. So that’s what she did for the next 45 minutes, walked around the room and stopped to shake the hands of nearly every person as she continued to talk.
About her process of handling cases, she said, “We get the briefs six to eight weeks before oral argument, and every chamber deals with preparing for oral argument differently. I like to read the cases and think about what I’ve read, so I read the briefs before my law clerks do. You have two weeks of argument; they’re doing drafts of things for me the two weeks after argument while I’m reading briefs for the next argument, and then we switch. Everyone handles it differently.”
On very often being the dissenting opinion in many recent Supreme Court decisions, she said, “I’m sure doing a lot of [dissenting] aren’t I? I never imagined this role for myself; I had never hoped for it. It’s not something you aspire to do. It’s burdensome and it’s hard, even harder when you are the only one dissenting, and on some things I have been the only one. Thankfully Ruth [Bader Ginsberg] is there so I don’t feel so lonely too often, but it’s not easy because you don’t want to lose.”
On the best way to handle oral argument, she said, “Answer my question. Seriously, it’s amazing to me how many lawyers come in and don’t get to the justices’ questions. They dance around it or they’re so intent on making their point that they forget it’s meaningless if they haven’t answered whatever is bothering the justice.”
On how to explain complex topics of the day with children, she said, “Simplify them, do what lawyers don’t do … When speaking with children, you have to simplify without misleading. You can’t explain a court decision without trying to explain its nuances in some way. To have children understand that laws are not black and white is the hardest lesson that adults still don’t understand.”
After the event ended, Justice Sotomayor ended up hanging around for a while to chat and take photos with anyone who didn’t mind sticking around afterward. She wasn’t shy in meeting anyone, often referring to people she hardly knew by their first names and taking the time to thoughtfully answer their questions.
“Perhaps because of these times people of all ages across all demographics, not just attorneys, are interested in the rule of law, the courts and especially the justice system of the U.S. Supreme Court, and tonight we were so lucky to have one of those justices here,” Richter said.
“A big thank you goes to my co-moderator, Dawn Cardi, who made this event possible, and our president, David Chidekel, for allowing me to have the spotlight one last time.”