A VIEW FROM THE PRESS BOX: SUPREME COURT JUSTICE HONORABLE SONIA SOTOMAYOR VISITS RUTGERS EAGLETON INSTITUTE bY Calvin Schwartz April 13, 2016
Over the years I’ve discovered the mind expansive joys of Rutgers Eagleton Institute of Politics. After one lecture, I told Watergate-famed John Dean, Nixon’s counsel, that he contributed to the break-up of my first marriage because I spent three weeks as a newlywed watching his testimony and nothing else. He laughed and asked if I re-married. I remember lectures with Doris Kearns Goodwin, Governors Whitman and Codey, Michael Beschloss, David Gergen. Senator Cory Booker was at Eagleton a few weeks ago. Actually Senator Booker called on me for the last question; it was my omnipresent Rutgers hat and “over-abundance of hair” which garnered his attention. When it was announced that Justice Sotomayor was coming on April 11th and registration was at 9 AM on line, I set the alarm for 8 AM. I filled out the form at 9 AM sharp. Seconds later, it was closed out and so was I. The demand to see the Supreme Court Justice was beyond.
Eagleton reacted and moved the venue to the Rutgers Athletic Center(RAC) to accommodate. I remembered I’m a journalist here at NJ Discover and got press credentials for the event. Arrival was two hours early to set up in the press box yet even that early, you could feel a special air of excitement and still hear echoes in the empty RAC. I walked around absorbing. The doors opened for the spectators; such a diverse and smiling demographic. I knew it wasn’t basketball season or Kansas. This was a special day.
Dr. Barchi, Rutgers President spoke briefly and acknowledged some past Jersey officials. Ruth Mandel, head of Eagleton and Justice Sotomayor walked across the gym floor to the stage and two comfortable chairs. A very skilled eloquent Ruth Mandel began to ask questions.
Justice Sotomayor remarked, “Who I am is an amalgam of experiences.” Mandel asked, “What did you hold onto from early days?” “I have a Puerto Rican heart….my culture is who I am….my values that I was taught…. love of family, community, country….” Once I heard her words, I knew she was a very special exceedingly humanistic Justice; a rare precious and beautiful person. This audience was in the presence of greatness. Isn’t it funny how fast you can tell qualities. She was born in the Bronx, went to Princeton and Yale Law.
“Has the court affected people close to you?” She missed that first Christmas; couldn’t leave the court. “Sure it changes you.” She went on to say, “I studied and studied…. never cut corners with education…. I worry students who are involved in everything…. involved with too much…. should concentrate on passions…. Don’t do any work that you’re not passionate about.” Yes, she was on a college campus with many students listening.
I loved this next segment. Justice Sotomayor mentioned that she doesn’t like sitting for long periods of time and walks slowly but she’d walk into the stands all the way up to the rafters answering questions. “I was called “hot pepper” by my mother. I can’t sit still.” How wondrously real. She shook hands with some of the appreciative audience. I was in the second level press box; she was three feet away. Yes, thrilling.
“Every night before I go to sleep, I ask what did I learn new today. How did I extend an act of kindness? If I can’t answer, I don’t go to bed…. I go on the internet.” I turned to Dan, Editor of the Rutgers Targum, sitting next and whispered, “A very special person. Wow.”
Fittingly she spoke about more diversity on the Supreme Court can help to better understand the cases but wouldn’t necessarily change outcomes. “In every case we’re announcing a winner. One side comes away vindicated…. One loses…. It makes this job hard.” I liked the air in the gym; no questioning on prevailing winds of politics and the court. There is a time and place. I just wanted to hear her humanity and personal expressions. Back on the gym floor, after students asked questions and a photo-op, Ruth Mandel and Justice Sotomayor were quickly gone. I think she had to catch a train.