For Samantha Acosta, a senior at St. Joseph High School, the opportunity to participate in the prestigious Sonia and Celina Sotomayor Judicial Internship Program this past summer was a dream come true. Though Samantha remembers her mom staying up all night to watch Justice Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings back in 2009, her own interest in the legal profession emerged later. A few years ago, a family member encountered some legal problems, and Samantha observed how the law was applied in a way that she understood to be unjust. “I was shocked to find out that the law could be used to promote injustice,” Samantha explains. She began to pay attention to cases in the news involving influential business people and musicians, noticing how often those with enormous financial resources and social capital emerged unscathed from run-ins with the law.
As a young Hispanic woman, Samantha aspires to become a lawyer, and perhaps even a judge, in order to give a voice to all those whose words, actions and experiences have been suppressed through unjust laws and applications of laws. The great philosopher and theologian Saint Thomas Aquinas, whose explanation of legal and moral principles continues to shape many contemporary legal systems and governments, stated in the Summa Theologica that “Justice is a habit whereby one renders to each person his or her due by a constant and perpetual will.” It is a passion for justice of this nature that inspires Samantha, and many other young students, to contribute to their communities and society as a whole by working in legal professions.
SJHS Government and Law teacher Mr. Dennis Kallo explains, “Understanding the ethical practice of law is not a new idea, but rather an ancient one that fits well with the identity and mission of St. Joseph High School. We seek to empower young women to find their voices and grow in their faith and integrity to become leaders who will create a just and peaceful world. To create such a world, we need ethics, principles, and traditions that we draw heavily on from our Catholic roots.”
In her internship this past summer, Samantha spent four days a week working with lawyers, clerks, the judge she was assigned to, and other judges in the Eastern District Court. During this period, she says, “Everything I knew about the law deepened.” She learned legal terminology, drafted her own opinions on numerous cases, and learned about the inner workings of the court system.. The internship program chooses motivated, high achieving students from underserved communities, seeking to increase diversity in the legal profession. “ I have never been among a group of students who were all as serious, driven and ambitious as I am, and being immersed in this environment challenged me to go farther and try harder in everything I did,” Samantha says.
The Sonia & Celina Sotomayor Judicial Internship Program seeks to increase diversity in the legal profession by educating and empowering students from underserved communities and diverse backgrounds. The Program exposes New York City high school students to legal careers through judicial internships in state and federal courts, educational workshops, and mentorship opportunities. The Program also places law school students in judicial internships to introduce them to the state and federal judicial systems and sharpen their legal research and writing skills.
“Mission,” The Sonia and Celina Sotomayor Judicial Internship Program
After working Monday through Thursday, students selected for the internship program spent their Fridays in weekly workshops that covered everything from SAT prep to preparing their college essays, and gave them a chance to get to know all the other interns. One of Samantha’s favorites amongst the weekly Friday guest speakers was Judge Denny Chin, a United States Circuit Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Judge Chin spoke about his background as a Chinese American and how he came to be a judge, and told the interns about some of the cases he had tried; for Samantha one best parts of this first meeting with Judge Chin was finding out that he sits in the chambers of Thurgood Marshall, which he occupied before he was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The highlight of the summer was meeting and speaking with Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor herself, at a special reception for all the interns and their parents on July 12th, also Samantha’s birthday! She was impressed and moved by the humility and sincerity of the Justice, who shared with the interns the story of her own journey to the Supreme Court, as the court’s first Latina justice and its third female. She encouraged them to consider great and exciting possibilities for their lives and insisted that no obstacles they face should stand in the way of hard work and determination.
A story with such an exciting conclusion almost begged for a sequel. And that’s what it received in September, when Samantha was invited to attend a celebration of the 125th anniversary of the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals. There she embraced the advice of the lawyers and clerks she had met during her internship – always network! – and she reintroduced herself to Judge Chin. She was surprised to find that he remembered her from their first meeting, and even recalled the question she had asked when he came as a guest speaker.
There is no better way to establish political life on a truly human basis than by fostering an inward sense of justice and kindliness, and of service to the common good, and by strengthening basic convictions as to the true nature of the political community and the aim, right exercise, and sphere of action of public authority.
“Gaudium et Spes,” Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, 2nd Vatican Council
This time Samantha was ready with a new question. In Mr. Kallo’s class she had been learning about one of the Judge’s most high profile cases, the trial of notorious white collar criminal Bernard Madoff, who received a 150 year sentence as a result of his engagement in the largest Ponzi scheme in the history of the United States. Samantha asked the Judge to elaborate on his sentencing decision, and, intrigued by her familiarity with the case, he offered to come speak to her entire senior class about his work as a judge!
On November 14th, Judge Chin arrived on campus here at St. Joseph’s, where he discussed with students some of his most exciting cases, and answered questions from students. After reading about and discussing criminal law and political theory in class, meeting the judge allowed many of the concepts and people to come to life in a new way, encouraging students to see the real-world application and impact of the topics they had been learning about. This event is a clear example of how the hands-on, experiential learning stressed at SJHS can contribute to the holistic education of college and career-ready students.
Some of the students in Mr. Kallo’s Law and Government class have also joined our new Model United Nations team, now in its inaugural year. In weekly meetings, students practice parliamentary procedure, and learn about major international crises that were resolved or are now being resolved through diplomacy. After several weeks of preparation, the team is participating in its first ever competition (EmpireMUNC IV), from December 7-10th 2017 at NYU!