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Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor Talks Justice, Civic Engagement at Radcliffe Day

Radcliffe Institute Dean Tomiko Brown-Nagin awards Supreme Court Justice Sonia M. Sotomayor the 2024 Radcliffe Medal at a ceremony on Friday.
Radcliffe Institute Dean Tomiko Brown-Nagin awards Supreme Court Justice Sonia M. Sotomayor the 2024 Radcliffe Medal at a ceremony on Friday. By Julian J. Giordano
By Matan H. Josephy and Neil H. Shah, Crimson Staff Writers

Supreme Court Justice Sonia M. Sotomayor described her mindset when writing decisions, told attendees to increase their civic engagement, and discussed the strains of serving on a rightward-shifting court while speaking at Harvard’s annual Radcliffe Day ceremony, at which she was awarded the 2024 Radcliffe Medal.

Harvard leadership and donors turned out en masse to hear Sotomayor’s remarks, with interim University President Alan M. Garber ’76, interim Provost John F. Manning ’82, several members of Harvard’s governing boards, and the deans of many of Harvard’s schools in attendance.

“There are days that I’ve come to my office after an announcement of a case, closed my door, and cried,” Sotomayor said to an audience stacked with Harvard’s top brass at Radcliffe on Friday.

“There have been those days. And here are likely to be more,” Sotomayor added.

One of three liberals on the court, Sotomayor has increasingly found herself dissenting against conservative majorities on issues ranging from gun control to abortion and the use of race-conscious policies in college admissions.

Before being given the medal, Sotomayor spoke on stage with former Harvard Law School Dean Martha L. Minow — one of her classmates at Yale Law School — about her passion for justice.

“Throughout our history, men and women have given up their lives to secure our freedom and to promote our equality,” Sotomayor said during the event. “There is no one in this room who's entitled to give up now.”

“Even I feel desperation. We all do,” she added. “But you have to own it, you have to accept it, you have to shed the tears and then you have to wipe them and get up.”

Sotomayor’s remarks came as an exceptionally pointed expression of frustration from a justice who has frequented the liberal minority of a court that many claim is the most conservative in decades.

Sotomayor also spoke about her thought process when she writes decisions — namely, who she writes them to.

“The public is my primary audience, insofar as I try to write opinions that someone uneducated in law could read and understand,” she said.

But, Sotomayor added, she is often “trying to write to the people who might make a difference in the way that I think is positive” — naming other judges, the executive branch, Congress, and the general public as some examples.

Sotomayor is the third Supreme Court justice to be awarded the Radcliffe Medal, after former justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sandra Day O’Connor.

“West Side Story” actress Rita Moreno, who voiced the audiobook to Sotomayor’s 2014 memoir, introduced Sotomayor and Minow. In her remarks, Moreno — who has known Sotomayor for over a decade — praised Sotomayor’s “combination of sharp intellect and deep empathy.”

“Her passion for justice and ability to remain profoundly human in the face of inhumanity continue to inspire,” Moreno said.

Before Sotomayor went on stage, the event opened with a discussion titled “The Long Arc of Equality and Justice in America,” which focused on civil rights, efforts to bar certain books from schools, and the Supreme Court’s historic 2022 decision that abortion is not a constitutional right.

The panel featured Adam Liptak, who covers the Supreme Court for the New York Times; Mary L. Bonauto, civil rights director at LGBTQ+ advocacy group GLAD; Nina Perales, vice president of litigation for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and social activist Jerome Foster II. NYU Law School professor Melissa E. Murray moderated the discussion.

During the panel, Foster — who serves as the youngest member of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council — urged the audience to “not be afraid to be radical.”

“I would say, to everyone here, to know that you have so much power and so many avenues to create change,” he said.

Sotomayor also spoke at the event about her passion for civic education, framed around the context of ongoing global struggles.

“We are leaving our kids a world filled with two wars, climate challenges, healthcare challenges, you name it,” Sotomayor said. “The younger generation has to be inspired to do a better job.”

—Staff writer Matan H. Josephy can be reached Follow him on X @matanjosephy.

—Staff writer Neil H. Shah can be reached at Follow him on X @neilhshah15.

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