At U, Sotomayor speaks about inspiration, Scalia's empty seat

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor
U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor speaks before audience at Northrup Auditorium at the University of Minnesota on Monday in Minneapolis.
Renee Jones Schneider | Star Tribune via AP

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor spoke to a packed crowd at Northrop Auditorium Monday at the University of Minnesota about her childhood in the Bronx, her rise through a male-dominated legal profession and the death this year of Justice Antonin Scalia.

Sotomayor said in the New York housing project where she grew up, there weren't any lawyers. As a child, she said her introduction to the legal profession came from TV, specifically Perry Mason. She admired the fictional lawyer's ability to get justice for his falsely-accused clients week after week. But that's not the only thing she liked about the show.

"I had a very bright light go off in my head. Perry did all the work but the final word was the judge's. I wanted to be the judge," she said.

In 1981, Sotomayor was two years out of Yale Law School and working as an assistant district attorney in New York City when President Reagan nominated the first woman to the Supreme Court. At the time, there were very few women working in the DA's office or as partners in big law firms, and she immediately recognized Sandra Day O'Connor's appointment as a watershed moment.

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"What did it mean to me? Hope. Not about being a Supreme Court justice, but about having a career where I could aspire to become anything I wanted. Just like you can," she said.

Sotomayor made history in 2009 when she became the first Hispanic person and woman of color named to the high court. Sotomayor said she's often asked about that milestone, but still finds it hard to answer.

"I certainly don't feel that I'm a justice just for Hispanics. I am a justice for everyone, for every citizen in this country affected by law in a good or bad place, because that's what we're asked to adjudicate."

Sotomayor plans to meet with 100 middle and high school students Tuesday at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul. The justice, — and members of the Minnesota Hispanic Bar Association — are helping launch a mentoring program for the students.

Despite sharp divisions of opinion among the justices, Sotomayor says the Supreme Court remains highly collegial. She said the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February hit everyone especially hard.

"Losing him was losing a member of my family, and every justice felt that way. We fought. Many of us fought continuously with him. But we really, deeply, were friends with each other," Sotomayor said.

The U.S. Senate — controlled by Republicans — has refused to consider President Obama's choice of Merrick Garland to succeed Scalia. Sotomayor did not comment on the politics of Garland's nomination, nor did she discuss the presidential election in detail.

But with just eight justices on the court, Sotomayor said people shouldn't expect sweeping decisions on divisive issues.

"We try to come to decision making as best as we can. Where we can find a very, very narrow way of deciding a case, we use it."

Sotomayor said it's harder for the court to do its job without a full bench. But even split decisions, she said, still resolve differing opinions from lower courts, and ensure justice across the country is administered equally.