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Sotomayor Shares Unexpected Challenges Of Serving On The Supreme Court

There are some unexpected challenges that come with sitting on the Supreme Court, Justice Sonia Sotomayor revealed on Monday during an hour-long Q&A at the American Law Institute's annual meeting.


Justice Sonia Sotomayor made her way around the enormous Ritz-Carlton ballroom as she answered questions from ALI president Roberta Cooper Ramo and ALI director and NYU Law Dean Emeritus Ricky Revesz. She stopped to greet people: shaking hands, hugging and kissing cheeks.

Answering a question about what she's found to be a challenge as a Supreme Court justice, Sotomayor said, "Who do I say yes to, in the thousands of invitations I get?" When the audience laughed, Sotomayor acknowledged it but added, "If I did everything I was invited to do, I would never work."


Being able to articulate a set of priorities to herself makes it easier to say yea or nay to invites, Sotomayor said. Here are a few of the parameters (and you're welcome if this helps you persuade the Justice to show up at your event):

  • "My most important mission is education," she said. To the extent that an audience is involved in education, it's more likely she'll say yes to an invite.
  • "If it involves work with younger people and educating them, I will do it."
  • "If it involves educating more senior people, I will do it."
  • "If it involves policy questions about education, I will do that."
  • For personal reasons, as a person with diabetes, she does events related to health, but says she can't do all of those.
  • She balances the groups to which she speaks: if she speaks to a plaintiff's group, she'll find a defense group to talk to shortly thereafter. "So if you make it easy for me and you involve both sides, I'm more likely to say yes."
  • She also balances the types of schools at which she speaks: public and private, Ivy League and second and third-tier law schools. (The importance of that is a lesson she picked up from Justice Thomas, she says, before she was even on the Supreme Court.)
  • It does help when a personal friend reaches out, she also admitted. "However, that also makes it more difficult for us to say no, but we have to sometimes."

Another challenge: "I had not anticipated how much more difficult the burden of decision-making is on the Supreme Court." As a District Court judge and Circuit Court judge, Sotomayor says she hadn't anticipated how comforting it was to have a court above her. After she'd worked as hard as she could coming to a decision, it was much easier to stop and rule, knowing that a higher court could have the final say. "That doesn't happen now."

She added, "Coming to what the right answer is, at least for the Court in that moment, is harder than I ever imagined."