October 10, 2018

Supreme Court Justices Kagan and Sotomayor Muse About the Road to Success

JUSTICES AT JADWIN: U.S. Supreme Court Justices Sonia Sotomayor (center) and Elena Kagan (right) were interviewed by Dean of Yale Law School Heather Gerken in Princeton University’s Jadwin Gym on Friday, October 5, during the “She Roars” conference. All three women are University alumnae. (Photo by Denise Applewhite, Princeton University Office of Communications)

By Anne Levin

When Princeton University planned the “She Roars: Celebrating Women at Princeton” alumnae event that took place last weekend, there was no inkling that one of the highlights — an interview with Supreme Court justices and alumnae Sonia Sotomayor and Elana Kagan — would coincide with one of the most divisive nominations in the court’s history.

But there they were at Jadwin Gym on Friday, October 5, just hours after nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s spot on the court was all but assured. Kavanaugh’s name was never mentioned during the discussion. The only reference made to the controversial appointment came when moderator Heather Gerken, a 1991 Princeton graduate and the dean of Yale Law School, asked Kagan and Sotomayor how they view their roles given the current political climate.

“This is a really divided time,” said Kagan, a 1981 graduate of the University. “Part of the court’s strength and part of the court’s legitimacy depends on people not seeing the court in the way that people see the other governing structures in this country …. People see the court as somehow above the fray.”

Sotomayor, who graduated in 1976, stressed that despite opposing political beliefs, members of the court make an effort to be collegial, having lunches together and observing a rule that cases cannot be discussed at those times. “We have to rise above partisanship in our personal relationships,” she said. Kagan added, “People don’t realize that we agree on a lot. About half the time, we’re unanimous. Going forward, it’s not so clear whether we’ll have that middle position,” she said, referring to former justices and centrists Sandra Day O’Connor and Anthony Kennedy.

Some 3,000 alumnae packed Jadwin Gym for the discussion. Many of the questions Gerken posed were submitted by audience members. Asked to recall what it was like to be at Princeton during the early years that women were admitted, Sotomayor acknowledged feeling like “a fish out of water.” She grew up in the South Bronx and was the first in her family to go to college. “You never completely get past it,” she said. “But I finally felt I was in when they made me a trustee.”

Kagan, who grew up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, named Sean Wilentz, who still teaches at Princeton and was sitting in the audience, as a key mentor. “He taught me how to write, which is a useful thing,” she said, adding she is grateful to him for convincing her that she didn’t want to be a historian after all. Clerking for Judge Abner Mikva, spending four years in the Clinton White House, and clerking for Justice Thurgood Marshall were other important influences that helped shape her career.

Asked what advice they would give about picking a mentor, Sotomayor said, “Mostly, they pick you. Show them that you’re interested in learning. You have to demonstrate your ambition. Lots of people forget that learning is a lifelong endeavor. It’s never too late to retool.”

Gerken asked Sotomayor and Kagan, who was the first female dean of Harvard Law School, to share what it was like to frequently be “the only woman in the room.” Kagan said there was a picture in her office of the 13 previous deans — all white men. “The first thing I did was take it down,” she said, to laughter from the audience. “But in the end, people were very generous.”

Sotomayor added, “You can’t be a professional woman, even today, whether it’s in law, medicine, any field, without having a moment where someone is going to treat you differently because you are a woman. But there were always men of good will. No matter how hostile an environment might seem, you have to look around. Because they’re out there.”

Gerken asked the women to reflect on their four years at Princeton. “It was so transformational and it affected my existing life and everything that’s come since,” said Sotomayor. Kagan’s response: “I got the best education and the best friends. And it forced me to keep thinking about different points of view.”

Finally, Gerken asked the women what they would like to be if they hadn’t become lawyers and, ultimately, Supreme Court justices. Sotomayor said “a salsa dancer … but I love the law.” Kagan answered, “Serena Williams.”