Sonia Sotomayor, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, urged law schools to weave ethical training into course curriculum earlier and to encourage students to participate in pro-bono work in a recent discussion held at the University of Houston Law Center.
Sotomayor made her comments during a fireside chat in Krost Hall with Professor Michael A. Olivas, the William B. Bates Distinguished Chair of Law and director of the Institute for Higher Education Law & Governance. The Justice also participated in a question and answer session with students.
“What we are not doing is training young lawyers to understand their ethical, moral obligation,” Sotomayor said. “It is not clear to me that we spend enough time teaching these students — lawyers of the future — about the difference between rules that should be our floor of behavior, and ethical behavior born from professional integrity. I think that some of the derision that the public has about lawyers comes from that lack of training.”
Sotomayor mentioned a lack of emphasis on core courses that teach students how to be well-rounded lawyers. She suggested that lawyers be familiar with varied areas of practice.
“To me it doesn’t really matter if you have your heart set on specializing in a particular area of law or not,” she said. “Students should consider taking taxation because every client you have will be affected by taxes one way or another.
“Take classes like estates because everyone has family and friends die. You should be able to talk intelligently to your parents and colleagues about making sure that they protect their families when they die.”
While emphasizing the importance of judges remaining neutral in court, Sotomayor said members of the bench must assess and overcome their own emotions so they can remain impartial.
“We do not put on our robe and lose emotion,” she said. “It is impossible. You are a person. If you hear a sad story or read a sad story, you cry. If something tugs at other people’s hearts, it tugs at our hearts.
“You have to as a judge take stock within yourself of your own prejudices, your own biases, your own feelings. You have to consciously correct for them. If you do not, you are unconsciously being unfair to the other side.”
While answering questions from Law Center students, Sotomayor slowly walked up and down the aisles of the auditorium, pausing to shake hands with members of the audience, and posing for pictures. At one point, she made her way into a center row where she chatted briefly with a young girl, signed an autograph, posed for a picture, and gave her a hug.
Sotomayor also met with student leaders in the morning. When asked what she regretted most in her career, she told students it was not serving as a federal law clerk even though her mentors encouraged her to do so.
Following the discussion Sotomayor was given the Dean’s Award from Law Center Dean Leonard M. Baynes at a luncheon sponsored by UH Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost Paula Myrick Short. UH President and System Chancellor Dr. Renu Khator, UH administrators, elected officials, local attorneys, students, alumni, and friends of the Law Center were in attendance.
“As a university president you have many special moments,” Khator said. “But there are some where you just stand in awe and in humility in front of somebody who is bigger than life, someone who is such an amazing and inspiring story that you just get speechless. This is one of those moments.”
“Justice Sotomayor was very down to earth and brilliant,” Baynes added. “Her background is so fitting of many of our students. Being the third woman and the first Hispanic to sit on the Supreme Court is an amazing accomplishment. Her background is really the story of the American dream.”
One of only four women to serve on the Supreme Court, Sotomayor was nominated by President Barack Obama on May 26, 2009, and joined the court on Aug. 8, 2009. She previously served as assistant district attorney in the New York County District Attorney’s Office from 1979–1984. She then litigated international commercial matters in New York City at Pavia & Harcourt, where she served as an associate and then partner from 1984–1992. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush nominated her to the U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, where she served from 1992–1998. She served as a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit from 1998 until her appointment to the Supreme Court in 2009.
Sotomayor earned a B.A. in 1976 from Princeton University, graduating summa cum laude and receiving the university’s highest academic honor. In 1979, she earned a J.D. from Yale Law School where she served as an editor of the Yale Law Journal.
This article, which originally appeared on the news and events page of law.uh.edu, has been reprinted with permission.
Photograph courtesy of the University of Houston Law Center