Alito and Sotomayor in SC

U.S. Supreme Court Justices Samuel Alito (left) and Sonia Sotomayor are speaking in South Carolina on Thursday. (Provided)

COLUMBIA — Fans waved in the hot sun as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito Jr. mused Thursday about the architecture of the University of South Carolina's new law school, talked about the importance of political speech and joked about the average person's apprehension for lawyers.

"For some people it may seem like building a new marsh for the breeding of mosquitoes," Alito said of the new law school building that opened this year on Gervais Street.

Alito, who was appointed to the nation's highest court by President George W. Bush, told the more than 100 people in attendance at the building's dedication there is a growing distance between academia and the actual practice of law.

"The gap is real," Alito said, adding the new law school's working courtroom and the university's focus on teaching the practice of law will go a long way toward bridging that divide.

Meanwhile at Clemson University on Thursday, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor told more than 900 students "there are no bad choices."

"Unless you engage in criminal activity. That's a bad choice," she joked during a freewheeling, hour-long Q&A session where she walked around audience in the Brooks Center for the Performing Arts and even took pictures with students mid-speech.

During the session she offered what life is like at the Supreme Court. "If you think every moment as a justice is fascinating, I'll let you in on a secret: It's not," admitted Sotomayor, a 2009 President Barack Obama appointee.

She offered the students her own list of keys to success: Hard work, overcoming fear of taking chances and a little bit of luck.

Alito was not as free-flowing with his speech that was delivered to the crowd of USC alumni, including Gov. Henry McMaster, and S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Donald Beatty.

The 67-year-old Princeton and Harvard alumnus, who has served on the Supreme Court since 2006, largely stayed clear of discussing his work on the bench in the past decade. The only time Alito veered towards a discussion of his decisions in the nation's highest court was when he referenced freedom of expression. He specifically singled out that right in the realm of political speech.

That topic was widely debated in the Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission case from 2010 in which Alito and the conservative wing of the court issued a ruling that opened up unlimited spending in U.S. political campaigns.

Alito also discussed the importance of upholding legal precedents set by federal courts in the past, arguing that changing those decisions would undermine public respect for the courts. But Alito, who opposed the 2015 majority opinion that gave same-sex couples the right to marry, also acknowledged there is room to overrule unjust laws. 

Meanwhile back at Clemson, Sotomayor mixed commencement-style life advice for students with some thoughts on the qualities that make for good judges and good lawyers.

“During my confirmation hearing, there were many critics who were saying that I simply wasn’t smart enough to be a Supreme Court Justice,” she said. “Now, I graduated from Princeton summa cum laude. I was an editor at the Yale law journal. I’ve been on the district court and the court of appeals. It’s hard to imagine what other credentials I could have gotten to be on the Supreme Court.”

The criticism, she said, was tinged with the idea that as a Hispanic woman she was an “affirmative action baby,” an example that is “reflective of the way people of color are treated.”

Sotomayor, 63, added that her status as a woman and a minority are only limited aspects of a broad biography that contributed to her perspective. She bemoaned that Supreme Court watchers often pigeonhole her and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who along with Elena Kagan represent the women on the bench.

“We’re not just women,” she said. “We’re jurists. We’re people.”

Jamie Lovegrove is a political reporter covering the South Carolina statehouse and congressional delegation. He previously covered Texas politics in Washington for The Dallas Morning News and in Austin for the Texas Tribune.