OKLAHOMA CITY – United States Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor surprised some in the audience at Oklahoma City University recently with an answer to a question that had obviously surprised her.
Sharing the role of asking questions with OCU President Robert Henry, Law Dean Valerie Couch referred to a comment that Sotomayor once had made about Justice Kennedy. Sotomayor had observed that he was more willing to overturn precedents on the 1st Amendment because he is passionate in his belief that the 1st Amendment is fundamental to how democracy works.
Couch then asked Sotomayor about what might be an area of the Constitution in which she would be more likely to overturn precedent than the others because of a similar level of passion.
Sotomayor responded: “I think the Fourth Amendment is fundamental to our system of government. It is the only amendment that speaks about — directly and completely — how government is limited in its relationship with individuals. The First Amendment is a structural one about our freedom to speak, but the Fourth Amendment protects their personal lives — their privacy, their freedom from government intrusion. It sets up the basic structure of the Constitution in terms of our government being a limited one. A lot of people talk about that we are a limited government, but they don’t understand where the strictures on that government come from. And so, yes, I think that the 4th Amendment is one of those, and all of the amendments that speak to the rights of citizens generally”
She went on to add, “But would I be willing to overturn precedent solely because of that? I don’t think so.”
After the event was over, two first year OCU law students were surprised and pleased by her answer on that question. Before the event started, Don Gaines said that she is inspiring to him. After it was over he said, “Now I am even more impressed and inspired that she was so concerned about the privacy rights of individuals.”
Classmate Peter Sorensen said, “I was pretty struck by her passion about the 4th Amendment. It was significant what she was saying about what part of the Constitution would make us privately protected.”
OCU Law Professor Danne Johnson also had a positive take on Sotomayor’s Fourth Amendment comments. “I thought that this was a great explanation of a common phrase, ‘a limited government.’ As she stated, people are familiar with this phrase but are unable to source the limitation. The Fourth Amendment is one such source of government’s limitation. I agree that the 4th is fundamental to our way of life in terms of our fundamental freedom from governmental oppression. As a listener, I also thought about the Fourth Amendment abuses and how they adversely impact poor people and minority people, both historically and in current times. It is so interesting to gain insight into what is ‘most fundamental’ to an individual justice.”
In her responses to questions over a broad range, Sotomayor continued to circle back to what seemed to be a significant theme for her, which is that the law and lawyers are doing their work for all of the people of the United States.
In response to President Robert Henry’s question about her early years as a prosecutor in the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, she said, “I loved being a prosecutor, and not for the traditional reasons of putting away the bad guy. That’s important. But I took so much pride in being able to get up before a jury, and say to them ‘I am Sonia Sotomayor, and I represent the people of the State of New York.’ And I recognized that being a prosecutor was not simply getting the bad guy, but it was very much doing what was right.”
At the end of the Q&A she was asked for her advice to law students present. Her response summed up her concept of the practice of the law. “Never forget, either in law school or in practice, that what the legal profession is, is service to people. If you remember that, you will never become unhappy with the law.”
After some specific examples of how it is service, she concluded, “Think of this as the quintessential service profession. We’re the only profession where our code of conduct requires us to do pro-bono [not for pay] work.”
Justice Sotomayor closed by making the point to everyone present that if you are unhappy with the current laws, change them.
“Laws don’t just happen to us. They are created,” she said. She went on to say that many people express unhappiness with Washington and the things going on there. But there is a solution.
“You have to get out and vote. You have to get out and make your voices heard….First and foremost we should all be active citizens.”
About the author: Brett Dickerson is an adjunct teacher teaching ESL (English as a Second Language) courses for Oklahoma City Community College. He takes great pride in representing a public education institution that is so committed to assisting people to earn a better place in this society. In the rest of his time he is a progressive activist and writer. His blog is called Life At the Intersections and he frequently writes for Red Dirt Report where this story was first posted.