If you don’t know to look for something,
how are you ever going to see it?
—Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor
I couldn’t have been more thrilled when one of my favorite clients invited me to a New York Women’s Bar Association dinner honoring long-time member and Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
I’ve written about the public speaking style of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and was eager to see the dynamic and brilliant Sotomayor speak in person.
Background: The Sonia Sotomayor “Controversy”
Back in 2009, when Sonia Sotomayor was nominated to the Supreme Court, some people’s feathers were ruffled by a statement she made five years earlier, to wit: “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.”
While this was clearly not her most politic comment, Sotomayor’s assertion that women’s life experiences are an advantage thrilled her female listeners — and not just the Latinas!
Not Everyone’s Life Experience Counts Equally
Of course, Sotomayor’s male colleagues have life experiences, too — and those experiences influence their jurisprudence, just as Sotomayor’s childhood in the Bronx influences hers.
The difference is that people who hold power don’t have to notice how their experience influences their attitudes (and, through their attitudes, the lives of everyone else!). Powerful people assume that their experiences and beliefs are the norm (“mankind,” “history”) and therefore don’t need to be explained, or even remarked on.
Of course, it doesn’t work that way for those of us who hold less power:
- Black people who point out racial injustices are often accused of “playing the race card.”
- Low- or middle-income people who criticize the 1% are said to be waging “class warfare.”
- And when a wise Latina suggests that — God forbid! — she might have some insights that people from another group lack, all hell breaks loose. (“Is Sonia Sotomayor a racist?” was actually put forward as a serious question at the time!)
In Spite of the Risks, Let Your Public Speaking Reflect the Life You’ve Lived
You might think that Sotomayor’s experience is an argument for playing it safe in your public speaking.
But in spite of the possibility of being misunderstood, the reverse is true:
It’s important that you be yourself when speaking in public, because authenticity is the source of your power as a public speaker — and because if you don’t draw on your own unique experiences and share your hard-won insights with your audience, you could be anyone up there talking!
How does this apply to one of the most important types of public speech we’ve got — that of Supreme Court Justices?
Here’s what Sotomayor told her New York Women’s Bar Association (NYWBA) audience (her words are transcribed below the video):
Transcription: “[How do you separate] what may or may not be proper from what Justice Alito does? And so backgrounds make a difference. They make a difference and influence you, as I said, consciously or unconsciously. What you don’t want to do as a judge is let those biases interfere with trying to look at things objectively. But if you don’t know to look for something, then how are you ever going to see it? [APPLAUSE] That’s why we need people with a wide variety of professional experience coming onto the court system. We’ve never had a matrimonial law Justice. [laughter] So who’s going to change that someday, in this room?” (emphasis mine)
In Public Speaking, You Are Also the Message
Of course, it wasn’t just Sotomayor’s words that delighted her NYWBA audience.
It was her presence, as she literally walked off the stage to stand among us, and share her thinking at close range. I’m usually not the star-struck type, but when she stood RIGHT NEXT TO ME and put her hand on my chair, I thought I was going to swoon!
There aren’t many public speakers who can make me breathless — but Sonia Sotomayor did the job, using nothing more dazzling than authenticity, wisdom, and warmth!
And here, to give her the last word, is a lovely segment Sotomayor did on Sesame Street about the meaning of the word “career”: