On March 29, Fordham Law welcomed U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor for a wide-ranging conversation with University President Tania Tetlow on how her upbringing and life experiences have influenced her approach on the bench, her career as a lawyer and judge, and on advice she has for today’s law students.
Justice Sotomayor joined the event virtually during a break in her busy court schedule in Washington, D.C. Over 340 faculty and students gathered for the intimate Q&A, which served as this year’s Robert L. Levine Distinguished Lecture at the Law School. Fordham Law Dean Matthew Diller and Professor Kimani Paul-Emile provided introductions for the two distinguished speakers.
The final week of Women’s History Month formed a backdrop for the conversation between the two trailblazing women: Justice Sotomayor, the third woman, first woman of color, and first Latina to serve on the Supreme Court, and President Tetlow, the first woman and first lawyer to lead Fordham University.
From the Bronx to the Supreme Court
During the hour-long discussion, Justice Sotomayor provided thought-provoking answers to a range of questions from students. Throughout all her answers ran a common thread: the great impact the law has on common Americans’ lives. The Justice credited this to her experience growing up in the Bronx, where she observed how the law affected all her neighbors, no matter their color, creed, or background. That realization, she said, came to shape her outlook on both the law and on her responsibilities as a judge.
When asked by Fordham Law student Carlos Rico ’24 about the biggest challenge facing the legal profession in the next five years, Justice Sotomayor responded that is maintaining the public’s trust. Despite such challenges, Justice Sotomayor assured students that she remains hopeful and firm in her belief in the power of law to help everyday citizens.
When asked by Lauren Burgess ’23 what she would say to younger generations of lawyers who may be disillusioned with the American justice system, the Justice called on them to become “champions of change.”
At the end of the conversation, Justice Sotomayor challenged students in attendance to find meaning in their work.
All in attendance were grateful for the rare opportunity to ask a sitting Supreme Court justice questions on their life and the law, taking away important lessons to reflect on as they prepare to enter the profession.
“I thought it was really important that [Justice Sotomayor] disabused us of the notion that things are insurmountable right now,” said Joe Gomez ’24, conference and events chair of the Latin American Law Students Association. “Being the first lawyer in my extended family [as I am], that’s something that I see now as a part of bending our universe towards justice.”
“[Justice Sotomayor] described all the ways you can matter in any kind of lawyering job—that it’s not about the job itself, it’s about the integrity that you bring to it,” said President Tetlow. “That is so profoundly true, and that’s what you will face—how you pick a career that maximizes the chance to keep your soul, right? That matters. But that you also use the power that you have in ways that really make a difference.”
Honoring Robert L. Levine ’26
Established through the generosity of the Laurence W. Levine Foundation, the Robert L. Levine Distinguished Lecture Series honors the legacy of Robert Levine ’26, who practiced law for 62 years.
The series has attracted a number of distinguished speakers from the legal community since its inception in 1992. Past Levine lecturers include notable jurists such as Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sandra Day O’Connor, Canadian Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Silberman Abella, and Judge Raymond Lohier of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, as well as prominent scholars such as Louis Henkin and Randall Kennedy.