On Wednesday, October 17, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor arrived at Stony Brook to give a talk regarding her book, “My Beloved World.” The talk was billed as a part of the university’s observation of Hispanic Heritage Month and was mandatory for first-year students. The event was held in the Island Federal Credit Union Arena and had thousands in attendance. It was structured with questions pre-written by students, chosen by the administration, and recited by the President of the University, Samuel Stanley, and was saturated with answers full of empty platitudes about happiness and not following the crowd.
When not speaking in flowery inspirational quotes, Justice Sotomayor seemed to play with the idea of addressing something substantive. Near the very beginning of the talk, for instance, she insisted that those who claim to be entirely self-made are in actuality nothing but braggarts. My eager little heart expected something a bit more substantial about privilege, but she quickly digressed. When she answered a question regarding dealing with rowdy coworkers, and she would refer directly to her Associate Supreme Court Justices by saying “some of those guys really talk trash,” I expected a comment on Brett Kavanaugh, or Clarence Thomas, or Donald Trump — that is, her coworkers who have been accused of some pretty egregious things. Her answer, however, was simply to “let others tell them how stupid they were,” and to “find time later to have a quiet conversation.”
Non-confrontational statements such as these seemed to be Justice Sotomayor’s idea of a meaningful and timely speech. Brett Kavanaugh — whose confirmation just eleven days prior to this event was wrought with allegations concerning his perpetration of three separate sexual assaults, and whose place on the Supreme Court is expected to cause rollbacks of major decisions regarding women’s health — wasn’t outright mentioned once. Nor was Trump, whose presidency has seen the ongoing separation of immigrant children from their parents, given ICE leniency in their tactics, and encouraged police brutality right here on Long Island (among many other reprehensible and illegal actions), and whose sovereignty has the potential to be rocked in this upcoming election (just three weeks away at the time of Sotomayor’s visit).
Justice Sotomayor grew up in the Bronx in the ‘60s and ‘70s. She is the first Latina to sit on the Supreme Court and only the third woman. She seemed perfectly set up to give an impassioned speech to a large group of young voters from her home state about the bleak future of our country and our world. Unfortunately, neither Justice Sotomayor nor the crowd seemed too interested in partaking in this pressing discussion. Many students during the event remained on their phones, talked to friends or even took out their laptops to do work.
But it makes sense, right? At a time when Taylor Swift can cause thousands to register with a single Instagram post and when “no one” wins the popular vote in the last election, are we really so surprised that eligible voters are finding it hard to stay interested? What is surprising is that apparently politicians are finding it equally hard. Members of the Supreme Court should retain a modicum of non-partisanship and Sotomayor was scheduled to give a speech regarding her book and her life’s story and she’s entitled to tell that story, but isn’t there an ethical imperative to use her platform to really provoke change?
To be fair, she did end the discussion with a half-hearted appeal to progress: “We adults have royally messed up this world.” She told the crowd that they must vote in the midterms with an important footnote that she doesn’t care who they vote for. Under normal circumstances I would totally agree. Though I may disagree with the politics of hopeful politicians on either side of the aisle, a democracy cannot properly function if the populous stays silent. However, times are tumultuous. Voting for Trump and his posse means voting for the freeze of federal fuel-efficiency regulations. It means voting for the NRA. It means voting for nationalism. It matters who you vote for. Justice Sotomayor’s time in Stony Brook was exactly what you would expect from any inspirational speaker: A safe list of poster-worthy clichés telling me how I should live an honest life and take things in moderation and fight for what I believe in. I just can’t see how it was a good use of anyone’s time.