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Legal Docket - Law grads get advice from on high

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WORLD Radio - Legal Docket - Law grads get advice from on high

Justice Sonia Sotomayor urges newly minted lawyers to translate real people’s stories into a common legal language


Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor sits during a group photo at the Supreme Court in Washington, Friday, April 23, 2021. Erin Schaff/The New York Times via Associated Press, Pool

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Monday the 14th of June, 2021.

You’re listening to The World and Everything in It and we’re so glad you’ve joined us today. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher.

It’s time for Legal Docket. Last week, we finished up covering all 64 oral arguments from this term. Opinions are expected today and through the end of the month. Twenty-one more opinions left to come in.

REICHARD: Two came in last week. One we covered briefly concerning people who enter the United States illegally and cannot take advantage of the special status granted to handle emergency situations, as when earthquakes struck El Salvador. The court held that temporary protected status doesn’t count as admission to the country.

EICHER: The second opinion came in a case in which Justice Samuel Alito displayed a little sarcasm:

ALITO: It’s always a pleasure to have another case involving the Armed Career Criminal Act. It is a real favorite.

The Armed Career Criminal Act, ACCA, is a frequent flyer at the Supreme Court. It sets out a mandatory 15 year minimum sentence for a person found guilty of illegally possessing a firearm IF that person has three prior convictions for violent felonies.

Charles Borden, Jr. fit that description. But he argued one of those three priors ought not count against him because he did not intend to do the action; he’d merely been reckless. ACCA requires purposeful or knowing conduct.

A plurality of five justices agreed and decided that intentional conduct is not the same as reckless conduct.

Four justices in dissent pointed out that conscious disregard of substantial risk to others should suffice as “knowing.”

REICHARD: Well, we don’t have any more oral arguments to cover, but this is graduation season. So today we will let you hear portions of a speech delivered by Justice Sonia Sotomayor to her alma mater, Yale Law School.

Her comments will sober new lawyers. She lays out how they might best shape the legal landscape.

Here now is Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor, and regardless of your personal viewpoint, I think you’ll find her remarks interesting and useful.

SONIA SOTOMAYOR, U.S. SUPREME COURT JUSTICE: I am delighted to be back at Yale Law School. You have finished a remarkable journey during especially difficult times. I know how challenging the last year has been in particular, and my heart goes out to those of you who have suffered illness or other hardship, or who have lost a loved one. I am thankful that we can take this day to celebrate all that you have accomplished and overcome. Congratulations.

Not to scare you, but in a sense, your path in the law will be more challenging than mine was when I graduated. Let me explain why. I was born a month after the Court's decision in Brown versus Board of Education. The fact that I was able to graduate from Yale Law School only 25 years later, was a direct product of that landmark decision. Growing up in a South Bronx public housing project, against the backdrop of the civil rights movement, I knew I wanted to be a lawyer from an early age. In those times, there was simply no higher calling than to seek justice on behalf of those who were denied it. That conviction only grew stronger by the time I graduated law school.

We understood the law as a force for good. We had Justice Thurgood Marshall, a black man on the Supreme Court. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor arrived as the first woman only two years after I graduated. The world and our work within it felt steeped in possibility. We not only saw the social utility of being a lawyer, but also believed in its power to change the very structure of our society.

You are graduating into a very different world, one where lawyers are less revered. One where the good that lawyers can do is viewed more skeptically, and even cynically by some. One where it is especially challenging to sustain the costs of living while working at a public interest job, especially if you have family obligations. Graduating in 2021, choosing to practice the law now is no small thing. Indeed, a star Yankees catcher, and wordsmith Yogi Berra once said, “The future ain't what it used to be.”

Let me offer a few reflections on the law and the ways in which you contribute to its betterment. The first is that process matters. It is critical to justice.

The procedures by which legal claims are formed, channeled and decided, can matter as much as the substance of the claims themselves. As newly minted lawyers, you are going to be relied on to navigate our complex legal system. As you grapple with these issues, you will gain a concrete appreciation for the real substantive work that our procedures do in safeguarding rights. You will also gain a sober understanding of the ways in which our procedures fall short. My charge to you is this: never stopped being students of procedure. Never lose that critical eye and eagerness to learn and master the rules. It will be your life's work, and it will help you do a lot of good.

My second reflection is that storytelling matters.

As much as the law can be focused on problems that seem technical or abstract, the core work of our profession is to translate real people’s stories into a common legal language. One of the most important parts of having one's day in court is simply being heard. Your job as you head off this year is to find people who have stories that need to be told. And to tell those stories well. The best lawyers can make the most complex disputes plain and understandable. Finally, the third reflection I want to share is that in the law, as in life, honesty matters. It matters more than anything else. It is imperative to maintain honesty about precedent, honesty about the facts of your case, and honesty in your conduct. You will inevitably find yourself in situations where it seems expedient or advantageous to bend the truth or even hide it in a misleading way. That will always be the wrong decision. Let me tell you a hard truth now. The legal profession can be a difficult place. There is a lot of suffering and a lot of injustice out there. You will lose cases, including ones you ached to win. Now, given these challenges and uncertainties, and the fierce resistance you will encounter to that which you believe is right and just, how can I tell you to maintain optimism? Well, first and foremost, I would say to never forget the progress that lawyers have driven up to this point. Racial integration, the advancement of women's rights... these are developments that happened during my lifetime, spearheaded by dedicated lawyers like Thurgood Marshall and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. You all have grown up in a world transformed by the seismic shift these lawyers engineered. As a result, more recent changes can feel slower and more marginal than the sweeping changes of my youth. Indeed, it is incremental work. But incremental work shores up hard earned advances. Without it, we are liable to slip backwards. You are a new generation of talented, caring and courageous people who will take the reins of our profession and continue to drive towards progress.

I would like to end today where my thoughts often go. When I think about the challenges we face. My mom. She overcame so much growing up as an orphan raised by siblings in Puerto Rico, migrating to the United States during World War Two, and raising me and my brother mostly alone, while working as a nurse. When I got into Princeton, she insisted on using the little money she had saved to buy me a coat. It was a white coat, sleek, well made and trimmed with fake fur. In my eyes it was one of the most beautiful garments I had ever owned. I wore that coat till its death. But whatever happened wherever I went, she wanted me to have that coat. To have a piece of her holding me close, reminding me of who I am and where I came from.

All of you are about to set off on a new journey. Filled with dramatic and unexpected changes and challenges. I wish that I could wrap each of you in a brand new coat, protect you on the path ahead. While I cannot give you a physical keepsake. I urge you always to remember who you are, and where you came from. Chase your dreams far and wide. Seek out those in need, wherever they might be. And learn all you can tell. Please remember to call up your families now and then. While you're at it, don't forget to thank them for today to the class of 2021 congratulations again.

[APPLAUSE]

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, addressing Yale Law School graduates in May.

And that’s this week’s Legal Docket.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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