U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor fears that the rancor, hostility and partisan fighting displayed during the nomination process of Justice Brett Kavanagh threatens to “diminish the integrity or the sense of integrity” that people attribute the nation’s highest court, she told a packed college gymnasium Friday in Pittsburgh.
“I, as well as many of my colleagues, worry about that,” Sotomayor said at Duquesne University’s A.J. Palumbo Center in Pittsburgh’s Uptown neighborhood.
More than 1,000 local dignitaries, college students and community members from across greater Pittsburgh crowded into the gym for a question-and-answer session with Sotomayor, featuring questions by Duquesne University President Ken Gormley and a selection of students. The justice also received an award and personalized Roberto Clemente Pirates jersey.
Sotomayor, a Bronx, N.Y., native and the first Hispanic woman to serve on the Supreme Court, spoke of her concerns over the clouded perception of the court while touting the genuine collegiality shared among justices and optimism in maintaining that respectful discourse.
Treating each other ‘like family’
“We are very collegial with one another, and we treat each other like family members,” Sotomayor said. “When there’s an illness among us, the first people to call is one of your colleagues. When my stepfather died, the first group of flowers were from the court and from individual colleagues.
“There is a sense that we not only live together but that we also have a responsibility to care for each other, because we work together on every single case the court hears,” she said. “Now, we have differences, but we are not uniform in our differences.”
Their biggest differences tend to stem from each justice’s approach to judicial interpretation, Sotomayor said.
But in the majority of cases that go before the Supreme Court, seven or eight of the nine justices agree unanimously on the decision, Sotomayor said.
And in many split, 5-4 decisions, one or more justices take a stance that outside observers do not expect.
“So labels, conservative and liberal, in the bulk of the work that we do, don’t have much meaning and much application,” Sotomayor said.
Women cultivating civility?
Sotomayor recalled a relatively recent meeting of the justices when the topic of discussion centered on the question: When did rancor and anger among justices end and why? Historically, the nine-member high court has undergone periods notorious for contention and hostility, she said, “but in more recent times, that hasn’t been the case.”
As justices deliberated over what had eased tensions and who could claim credit, Sotomayor recalls hearing a soft voice chime in from the corner of the room.
“It’s when women came to the court,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg told them.
The remark may have come off like a joke, “but in many ways she was very earnest with that comment,” Sotomayor said.
“When (retired Justice) Sandra Day O’Connor joined the court, she was insistent on collegiality,” Sotomayor said.
O’Connor made it a point, for instance, to ensure that all the justices came together for regular lunches, especially on days following heated arguments or contentious rulings.
“If someone missed one or two days, you would find her sitting in a chair outside of your office and she’ll say, ‘So what’s happened to you? Where were you?’ ” Sotomayor said.
When O’Connor retired from the court in 2006, she told Chief Justice John Roberts that she was passing that torch of maintaining collegiality to him, “and he’s taken this charge very seriously,” Sotomayor said.
Sotomayor echoed Roberts’ statement shortly before Thanksgiving, in which he made clear that the judiciary’s commitment is not to any president but to the “rule of law.” The remarks were part of an unusual sparring over the independence of the judiciary following President Donald Trump dismissing a judge who rejected his migrant asylum policy as an “Obama judge.”
“We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges,” Roberts said in response to Trump. “What we have is an extraordinary group of dedicated judges doing their level best to do equal right to those appearing before them.”
‘That little girl from the Bronx’
Sotomayor was confirmed to the Supreme Court following a swift Senate confirmation under President Barack Obama in 2009, having received appointments to earlier judgeships by presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush.
On Wednesday, Sotomayor was at the National Cathedral for the funeral of Bush, who nominated her to a U.S. District court in New York in 1991.
She saw most of the living U.S. presidents. Then she spotted Prince Charles.
“And I’m looking at all of this and thinking, ‘How does that little girl from the Bronx end up here?’ ” Sotomayor said.
Sotomayor discusses her humble roots and early tribulations and how they shaped her in her memoir, “My Beloved World,” which also comes in young-adult and children’s book versions. Attendees at Friday’s event snapped up signed copies for $15 apiece before and after the roughly 90-minute event.
Sotomayor, who is of Puerto Rican descent, was born in the South Bronx in 1954. Photos in her children’s book include a dilapidated apartment building with broken windows beside a large dirt lot. Her dad, a tool-and-die worker, suffered from alcoholism and died in 1963, leaving her single mom to work two jobs, including as a nurse at a methadone clinic, to help fund her tuition to Princeton and Yale. She joined the bar in 1980 and began work as an assistant district attorney in New York.
Among lessons she learned during her early career: Don’t let fear hinder your success, and don’t turn down unexpected offers such as a presidential judgeship, which she did once before accepting Bush’s appointment because she wasn’t sure she was ready.
“You have to live your life; plan it,” Sotomayor said. “You have to decide what skills you want to learn in what order, and how to grow.
”But you have to be open enough that when an opportunity presents itself, you say yes, I’m going to try it … and I can come back if I’m wrong, or it’ll take me on a new road in my life,” Sotomayor said. “You take what you got, and you create a new playbook right on the spot.”
Despite how controversies such as Kavanaugh’s nomination have played out in the public’s eye, Sotomayor emphasized that she hasn’t lost faith in the American people’s ability to overcome partisan divides and get better at understanding and appreciating differences.
“If I gave up on believing that we as people can’t grow to talk together, if we can’t find a way to try to understand each other, then we might as well give up living,” Sotomayor said. “Life is about what makes us different, and how we manage that.”
Before leaving the stage, she pointed out that both Ginsburg and Justice Stephen G. Breyer were confirmed by 90-plus congressional votes.
“It would be nice if we could get back there some day,” Sotomayor said.
Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review
staff writer. You can contact Natasha at 412-380-8514, [email protected]
or via Twitter @NewsNatasha.