Posted July 22, 2009

Law dean testifies in Supreme Court confirmation hearings

Sonia Sotomayor's appointment "would advance the very important message that women have a contribution to make at the highest levels," said the dean.

  • Photo courtesy C-SPAN C-SPAN captures Law School Dean JoAnne A. Epps' testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
  • Photo courtesy JoAnne A. Epps Epps, right, met with Supreme Court justice nominee Sonia Sotomayor while in Washington to testify on behalf of the National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL).

Last Thursday evening, while most Temple faculty, staff and students were eating dinner, Dean JoAnne A. Epps of Temple's Beasley School of Law was busy making history in the nation's capitol.

At 7:15 p.m., Epps testified before the members of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee in support of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor. Epps, who spoke on behalf of the National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL), said that Sotomayor is "highly qualified to serve as an associate justice of the Supreme Court" and that "her appointment would advance the very important message that women have a contribution to make at the highest levels" of the legal profession.

"It was a thrilling day that I will always remember," said Epps, who shared the spotlight with a long list of prominent witnesses, including New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, New York County District Attorney Robert Morganthau and former FBI Director Louis Freeh.

Epps had co-chaired a NAWL committee that evaluates Supreme Court nominees. The committee went to work within 48 hours of President Obama's nomination of Sotomayor in late May. After an intensive evaluation of Sotomayor's legal ability, temperament and support of issues of importance to women, the committee came to a favorable consensus on her qualifications and chose Epps to represent NAWL at the confirmation hearings should the organization be called upon by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Then, only a week before the hearing, Epps found out that she would be testifying. She drafted her testimony on the Saturday before the hearings, had it reviewed by her NAWL committee members, then submitted six double-spaced pages to the Senate Judiciary Committee by the Wednesday morning deadline. She rehearsed her five-minute statement once before appearing in the Hart Senate Office Building, just north of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on the fourth and final day of hearings.

Epps' visit to the Capitol also included plenty of high-level Washington networking. During and after the hearings, Epps ran into and had conversations with Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee; Nina Totenberg, National Public Radio's legal affairs correspondent; and Judge Sotomayor herself, who invited Epps and a friend into her private waiting room for an informal chat.

One of only a handful of African-American women to hold deanships of American law schools in April 2008, Epps acknowledged the greater social significance of Sotomayor's nomination.

"We've come a long way, but we do have so much further to go," she said. "If you look at the senators on the Judiciary Committee, you can see they're still overwhelmingly male. We're still not there yet."