Justice Sonia Sotomayor ’79 Delivers the James A. Thomas Lecture at Yale Law School

Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court Sonia Sotomayor ’79 visited Yale Law School Monday, February 3, 2014 to deliver the James A. Thomas Lecture in the Levinson Auditorium.

The lecture took the form of a conversation between Justice Sotomayor and Linda Greenhouse ’78 M.S.L., Knight Distinguished Journalist-in Residence and Joseph Goldstein Lecturer in Law at Yale Law School.

During the hour-long conversation, Sotomayor reflected upon her jurisprudence, drawing on the opinions she has written and the cases she has participated in since taking her seat on the nation’s High Court


“What I view as my jurisprudence is process,” said Sotomayor. “I can’t control the outcomes of cases…and I can live with that if I perceive the process to be fair.”

The lecture was introduced by Dean Robert C. Post ’77, who described the striking nature of her opinion in the 2012 United States v. Jones decision, a case in which the court unanimously decided that the government’s installation of a GPS device in the vehicle of a drug trafficking suspect for 28 days constituted a search under the Fourth Amendment.


“Justice Sotomayor’s concurrence struck a different note,” said Post. “It went deeper and broader. It explained why we, as persons, care about surveillance. By probing this question to its foundations, Justice Sotomayor was able to anticipate many of the controversies that have since arisen about the mass electronic surveillance that has been conducted by the NSA.”

Speaking of the Jones case, Sotomayor said her opinion was “born in my going back to search and seizure law and thinking more broadly in its application to new technology.”

“As I was examining our precedents and our thinking in this area, I was thinking of those complexities and nuances,” said Sotomayor. “I knew what was coming up.”

Sotomayor also addressed her use of the term “undocumented immigrants” rather than the term “illegal alien,” characterizing the immigration issue as a regulatory issue.

“To dub every immigrant a criminal because they are undocumented, to call them illegal aliens seemed and has seemed insulting to me,” said Sotomayor. “I think people then paint those individuals as less than worthy human beings and it changes the conversation.”

Toward the end of the lecture, the discussion evolved into her efforts to use her own personal story to inspire others.

“Having come from where I did, I knew that message of hope can't be recounted often enough for people,” said Sotomayor. “And so I understood and I hope my candor about myself as a person would permit others to be more introspective about themselves and more hopeful about themselves.”

In concluding the lecture, Sotomayor emphasized the importance of connecting citizens with the law and encouraging everyone to be an active participant in their community.

“Participate, find your nook,” urged Sotomayor. “You don’t have to be a lawyer, but you have to be an involved person. You have to care enough about things to do something about them. It doesn’t have to be politics. It can be your church, your school, your community center; however, you want to be involved. What you cannot do is ignore things.”

Sotomayor’s visit to New Haven included a separate talk open to the wider Yale community earlier in the day during a conversation about her life and book, My Beloved World, moderated by Arthur Liman Professor of Law Judith Resnik. Justice Sotomayor also met with students from Yale Law Women and the Latino Law Students Association at a private luncheon at Yale Law School.

Monday’s visit by Justice Sotomayor marked her return to campus after being awarded an Honorary Doctor of Law degree at the Yale University Commencement in 2013 at which time she also addressed students at the Yale Law School commencement ceremony.

Judge Sotomayor graduated summa cum laude from Princeton University in 1976 and received her J.D. in 1979 from Yale Law School, where she was an editor of the Yale Law Journal and managing editor of the Yale Studies in World Public Order.

The James A. Thomas Lecture was established in 1989 in honor of Dean James A. Thomas ’64 and his many years of service to Yale Law School. It brings to the Law School a scholar whose work addresses the concerns of communities or groups currently marginalized within the legal academy or society at large.

During Monday’s lecture, Dean Post announced the establishment of the James A. Thomas ’64 Scholarship Fund, which will offer assistance to Yale Law students with need. The scholarships were created by a gift from David A. Jones ’60 and his wife Betty, who are among the Law School's most generous and committed supporters.