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Long Way Up to Highest Court of the Land

March 9, 2011 | by Pat Vaughan Tremmel
Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor participated in a wide-ranging discussion with Andrew Koppelman, the John Paul Stevens Professor of Law (right) and Lee Epstein, the Henry Wade Rogers Professor of Law and leading expert on judicial politics (left).

CHICAGO --- Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, as the Howard J. Trienens Visiting Judicial Scholar at Northwestern University School of Law, held the audience that filled Thorne Auditorium rapt with her candid, smart and sometimes humble answers to a range of questions from two Northwestern scholars.

Her discussion reflected the passion as well as hard work that she emphasized throughout the conversation on stage with Northwestern Law’s Andrew Koppelman, the John Paul Stevens Professor of Law, and Lee Epstein, the Henry Wade Rogers Professor of Law and leading expert on judicial politics.

Sotomayor requires that her clerks exhibit the highest standards in grades and leadership to land a job on the court, but she also is insistent that they show passion in their job interviews with her – whether for singing in a choir or for understanding the intricacies of securities law. She looks for the moment in the interview that reflects such passion. “If I don’t see their passion, they don’t get hired.” 

Such passion, she learned early in her own career, is the key to success in life. “In whatever path you choose, you have to demonstrate competence and skill,” she said. “But that’s only part of the equation. The other half of the equation is showing some sort of passion to an enterprise in the law that people will notice.”

Today’s standard strategy for a successful judicial career may not be the same in years to come, she emphasized. But, in order to stand out, Sotomayor said, an aspiring judge must always demonstrate both competence and passion for something, anything. “You have to draw people’s attention to yourself,” she said. “You have to do something that impresses people enough in some segment of society that will help you come to the attention of judicial appointment people.”

During the question-and-answer session with the audience following the discussion, she hinted at the bruises from breaking the glass ceiling in her career by citing her frustration during the nomination process. “There were private questions I was asked that I was offended by, because I was convinced they were not asking those questions of the male applicants,” she said.

Because of the double standard, she said, “I was, and am still, very careful about whom I date and how public it is, and I do it very quietly.”

Other highlights of Justice Sotomayor’s conversation:

• Serving on the court that decides the law of the land versus serving as a judge on lower courts, whose decisions are either affirmed or denied by higher courts, presents a unique burden, she said. “I find that the weight of this is greater than I anticipated.”

• Students from diverse backgrounds such as hers who might be interested in achieving a judicial clerkship need guidance from day one of law school, she stressed. Though she went to Yale Law School, Sotomayor said, she knew no lawyers and had no mentors to guide her on how to master the law school experience. Students from diverse backgrounds, she said, “don’t have enough knowledge of what they need to do and how to do it to be able to set themselves up for that clerkship application.”

• To be selected as a Supreme Court clerk, she said, “You don’t have to be the first in your class, but you do have to be at the top of your class to have the discipline to perform well across the board.”

• Writing well also goes a long way in being selected as her Supreme Court clerk. “I don’t look for just law journal people,” she said. “I do look for people who have written with a professor and people who have demonstrated a greater love for and expertise in writing than what their grades show.”

• Being plain nice also is a big draw in becoming a Sotomayor clerk. She looks for letters of recommendation that cite that a prospective law clerk is a good person, cares about others and works well on teams. “I tell my new law clerks if they leave this experience having done only their work, then I have failed them, because it’s our work. It’s not just Sonia Sotomayor’s opinions; it’s the chamber’s work product.”

• Oral arguments, and, particularly, the issues raised by her colleagues on the bench, she said, are extremely important to her in understanding issues and influencing her opinions.

• Law students today, she worried, are too busy to have the type of bonding experiences she cherishes from her law school days, when she and her friends, over glasses of wine, engaged in long conversations about a particular issue discussed during class. “Those friends that you spent those hours laughing with and talking with will be supportive at those times in which you need assistance,” she said.

Past Trienens speakers include Chief Justice of the United States John G. Roberts, Jr.; the late William H. Rehnquist, a former chief justice; Supreme Court Associate Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Antonin Scalia and Anthony M. Kennedy; and former Supreme Court Associate Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and John Paul Stevens.

The Trienens Visiting Scholar Program was established at the School of Law in 1989 by partners of Sidley Austin to honor Howard Trienens’ service to the firm and Northwestern.

Trienens, a partner at Sidley Austin since 1956, has been a member of the Northwestern University Board of Trustees since 1967 and chairman of the Northwestern board from 1986 to 1995. He received two degrees from Northwestern, a bachelor’s degree in 1945 and a J.D. in 1949. He was editor in chief of the Illinois Law Review. After graduating he taught a course in criminal law at the Northwestern University School of Law and was clerk to Fred M. Vinson, a former chief justice of the United States.
Topics: Campus Life