Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor is not afraid of running a “hot bench” and routinely asks many questions of lawyers who come before the Supreme Court. That was certainly true in November when Carter G. Phillips represented the State of California and argued that a federal court order mandating the state to reduce its prison population by 40,000 over a two-year period was “extraordinary and unprecedented.” She was on that day as she was on her first day on the nation’s highest court in 2009 and many days since, the justice with the most questions. Her tendency to ask many questions possibly stems from her confident communication that comes without hesitation. In an interview in her chambers, Justice Sotomayor described her communication style and her thoughts about speaking in public.
She recounted an exchange during her law school days at Yale. She said, “I was in law school one day with my three closest male friends. The law school was then only about 20% female. It wasn’t unusual to be the only woman in the class. One of those men turned to me and said, “Sonia, you argue just like a guy; you never show any doubt.” She elaborated: “Men never question if what they are saying is valuable. Women instead will ask: ‘have you thought of this?’ or ‘What do you think of this?’ She observes that often when women communicate there is an attempt to minimize and to be non-confrontational. She added, “Men just jump in. Men use the active voice and women use the passive voice, except when women are talking about emotion. Then it is reversed.”
Justice Sotomayor has been honing her public speaking skills since her grammar school days when she was a member of the forensic team. In high school she won a contest to give the valedictory speech at graduation. She reflected on her high school message about the hope of change. She remembers speaking about how difficult it would be to change to make this a better society. It is a message she still sends today in her speeches. Being the speaker at her high school graduation inspired her to do more with her life, she said.
When asked if she enjoys speaking in public she said that she has become accustomed to public speaking through practice. She said, “I thought that it would be important to be able to speak well in public, and anything you work to improve your skills and do well, you tend to like. Very few people are natural actors — singing or acting are skills that you need to acquire, just like public speaking. I think I started to like speaking because I took the time to learn it.”
She warns, however that just enjoying speaking is not enough to make someone an effective speaker. She said, “I do think that you need to keep an edge of fear in you that you should not lose.” She described one of her supervisors in the district attorney’s office who said that the day you walk in the trial and you are not fearful is the day you will fail.
Though well experienced and a frequent speaker at universities and forums, Justice Sotomayor never takes for granted that she can speak well without preparation. She always aims to write her speeches in advance or to at least have an outline. She can still remember her anxiety back in 1992 in district court. She said: “it took me a number of weeks to go out into the courtroom. I can remember hearing my knees knock. After ten minutes the jitters stopped. I found my pond. This little fish had found her pond.” Though she is known for her frequent questioning she admitted: “Even now, I still get flutters when I ask that first question.” She said, “If I’m asked to speak impromptu now, which I often am, I will sit in the audience thinking about a theme and trying to figure out what to say that will contribute.”
In a 2001 speech delivered at University of California at Berkeley that has garnered a lot of attention for her comment about being a “wise Latina woman,” another statement in that speech has received little attention. She said: “America has a deeply confused image of itself that is in perpetual tension. We are a nation that takes pride in our ethnic diversity, recognizing its importance in shaping our society and in adding richness to its existence. Yet, we simultaneously insist that we can and must function and live in a race and color-blind way that ignore these very differences that in other contexts we laud.” When asked if America has made progress since her speech almost a decade ago she said, “I think it is worse now. We hear so many times that we are ‘a land of immigrants’ but there is a debate over immigration and we are struggling to find that line.” Indeed, her warning to her high school audience that it would be difficult to change to make this a better society, was prescient. In the meantime, Justice Sonia Sotomayor will be confidently asking questions, without doubt, to indeed make this a better society.