Bronx Native is First Sitting Justice to Speak at the College Commencement: Sonia Sotomayor to Speak at 177th Undergraduate Commencement


Supreme Court Justice and Bronx native Sonia Sotomayor will deliver the keynote address at Manhattan College’s 177th Undergraduate Commencement Exercises next month, the college announced last week. Sotomayor will be the first sitting Supreme Court Justice to visit the college.

The announcement is the culmination of a years’ long process to bring Sotomayor to campus involving Board of Trustees member Patrick G. Boyle ‘75, who attended Cardinal Spellman High School at the same time as Sotomayor.

“[Sotomayor] spoke at a Cardinal Spellman commencement and [Boyle], who is also a member of the board of Cardinal Spellman, met her there and she gave a really really great talk there, which he thought would be very very well received at Manhattan too,” Manhattan College President Brennan P. O’Donnell, Ph.D., said.

From there, a formal invitation written by Boyle was hand-delivered to Sotomayor by a second Manhattan alum who wished to remain anonymous. That was in 2016.

Given Sotomayor’s busy schedule, she could not attend the following year’s commencement, nor the one after that.

“We basically said, ‘you pick the year and when you’re ready,’” O’Donnell said. 2019 was the winner.

Sotomayor was born in 1954, and raised in a working class Puerto Rican family in the South Bronx. Sotomayor attended Cardinal Spellman High School in the Edenwald section of the Bronx.

She graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor of arts from Princeton University in 1976, before moving onto Yale Law School, where she was awarded her juris doctor in 1979.

President George Herbert Walker Bush nominated Sotomayor to the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York in 1991. As District Court Judge, Sotomayor issued the injunction that put an end to the 1994-1995 Major League Baseball strike.

In 1998, President Bill Clinton nominated her to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, which includes Connecticut, New York and Vermont.

President Barack Obama nominated her for the Supreme Court to replace retiring Justice David H. Souter on May 26, 2009. She was confirmed by the Senate by a vote of 68-31 on Aug. 6, 2009, and assumed her office two days later, becoming the first Latin American and third female on the high court.

On the court, Sotomayor has been described as a liberal vote, frequently voting alongside fellow Associate Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan.

She is known for strongly written opinions, especially on issues of criminal justice, race and gender.

“Her most famous [opinions] are her dissents, because she’s typically in the minority,” Keller said.

Among Sotomayor’s most fiery dissents is her opinion in the 2016 case Utah v. Strieff. In the case, officers detained a man named Edward Strieff, seizing methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia. Strieff had an outstanding arrest warrant for a traffic violation. The Supreme Court held that the evidence seized by the officers is admissible, even though the stop and search itself was unlawful.

Sotomayor’s dissent opened, “The Court today holds that the discovery of a warrant for an unpaid parking ticket will forgive a police officer’s violation of your Fourth Amendment rights,” continuing, “This case allows the police to stop you on the street, demand your identification, and check it for outstanding traffic warrants—even if you are doing nothing wrong.”

“There’s a kind of raw edge of lived experience in her writing that’s unique,” Keller said. “So [Justice Antonin] Scalia liked to quote operas, philosophers, and he was a great stylist in his own way. She tends to bring it down to this reality of lived experience.”

Sotomayor also wrote a dissenting opinion in the 2018 landmark case Trump v. Hawaii, which by a 5-4 vote upheld President Donald J. Trump’s travel ban from seven majority-Muslim countries. Sotomayor opined that the decision turned “a blind eye to the pain and suffering the Proclamation inflicts upon countless families and individuals, many of whom are United States citizens.”

Keller believes that even those who disagree with Sotomayor’s jurisprudence will still enjoy and be inspired by Sotomayor’s remarks.

“It can’t get much better than this,” Keller said. “Whether or not one agrees with her, it’s really hard not to find her inspiring.”

“Everyone that I have heard that has ever heard her speak has said that she’s inspirational. And that’s what you want in a commencement speech. You want students to leave feeling that they’ve been lifted up,” O’Donnell said. “She’s a great example of a graduate of a Bronx Catholic school. And we’re a Bronx Catholic school.”

Students agree.

“I’m honored to have Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor as our commencement speaker,” Student Body President Jaycie Cooper said. “Me and my family are very much looking forward to her keynote address.”

The commencement exercises will begin at 11:30 a.m. on Friday, May 17. Eight hundred eighty-four candidates are expected to walk in the ceremony.