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Former Classmate Recalls Sotomayor

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And now to the other legal story of the day, and we're going to get some insight into President Obama's Supreme Court pick. Sonia Sotomayor attended Yale Law School with Stephen Carter. Carter is now a professor of law at Yale. He stayed in touch with Sotomayor and teaches some of her rulings in his law classes.

He's also the author of several books, including "Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby," and the best-selling novel, "The Emperor of Ocean Park." He says one of her talents was finding a clear route through competing theories.

Professor STEPHEN CARTER (Yale University Law School): One of the things that I remember about Sonia going all the way back to law school is that she suffers fools. That is to say that she is willing to listen in a thoughtful and respectful way, even to people who disagree with her, perhaps sharply, even when perhaps when they don't know what they're talking about.

So she has a wealth of different kinds of legal experience and at the same time, has an attitude of mind that makes her, I think, someone who listens very seriously to those who disagree with her.

NORRIS: What do you remember about her from law school? What kind of student was she?

Prof. CARTER: Anyone who talks about Sonia from law school, one of the first things they'll mention is that she loved to argue. And I don't mean argue in the modern name-calling sense. I meant she loved to sit down and thrash out a difficult legal topic. And that was fun for her to sit around and argue about these things, sometimes for extended periods of time, often not so much about the hot-button constitutional law issues, but often about seemingly abstruse questions of corporate law or tax law.

And again, when you disagreed with her, that was never threatening to her. She was happy to sit there and listen to your reasons. And if you persuaded her, she'd change her mind, just like if she'd persuade you, which she often did, you'd change your mind.

NORRIS: Those who are close to President Obama say that he, in making this selection, was looking for someone who had the intellectual firepower and the grit to go up against Antonin Scalia, in particular. Can you imagine that conversation?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. CARTER: Well, you know, I think that Sonia has the firepower, she has the grit. But we shouldn't rush to assume that she would always be against Scalia. I think what we have to imagine, if we think of the two of them talking, is there'd be some controversial issue that would arise. And he would set forth, with all of that fire and rhetoric, what he believes. And she would ignore the rhetoric and ignore the fire, and look at the argument and see if it worked. And if the argument worked, she might agree with him.

I think what Sonia will not do as a justice - a lot of the justices nowadays have started this process of having these little footnotes almost mocking or deriding the opinions of the other justices. That's a very bad thing for the court, and I cannot imagine Sonia Sotomayor getting involved in that. And in that sense, I think she may actually bring a higher standard of comedy, of respect for others, of collegiality than may be on the court right now.

NORRIS: She's racked up a lot of awards. She was summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, and yet on her way to this nomination, when she was actually considered among the short list of people that President Obama was considering, there were those who questioned her intellect. Were you surprised by that?

Prof. CARTER: I was disgusted by that. I think it is a terrible thing to look at someone who was Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude at Princeton and graduated Yale Law School and was on the Law Journal and say, oh, I think this person is not intellectually up to the job.

And, you know, it's funny in a way. The first black nominee to the Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall, people said he's not intellectually up to the job. The second black nominee, Clarence Thomas, they said he's not intellectually up to the job. The first Latin nominee, they said she's not up to the job. I hate to say there's a pattern developing here, but it's very peculiar, in a way, that this keeps coming up at these particular moments.

No one can look at her body of work, at her resume and at the remarkable opinions she has written as a judge, look at them fairly and say that in any sense she's anything but one of the best legal minds on the Courts of Appeals in the United States. I think it's clear when you actually take the time to read her opinions.

NORRIS: Stephen Carter, good to talk to you. Thank you very much for your time.

Prof. CARTER: Always a pleasure. Thank you.

NORRIS: That's Professor Stephen Carter. He's the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale University. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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