Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor confesses she still has moments of insecurity. She bluntly answers “no” when a television news reporter asks if she feels she fits in on the United States' highest court after six years.
But Sotomayor, the first Hispanic justice in the court’s history, said she belongs, even if it’s taken her and her initial critics a few years to realize it.
“I’m very different from my colleagues,” said Sotomayor, who rose to her position after being raised by a single mother from Puerto Rico in housing projects in the Bronx.
“They love opera, I love jazz,” she said of her fellow justices. “I am more outspoken. … There’s a little bit of that fiery Latina in me.
“I take differences as an opportunity to learn something new,” she said. “It’s very important not to think of differences as good or bad — just different.”
Sharing candid, deeply personal experiences, Sotomayor inspired an overflow crowd Sept. 2 at the University of Notre Dame. She held court for nearly two hours, answering questions from Notre Dame alumna, trustee and NBC News reporter Anne Thompson before mingling with the 850 people filling the auditorium. Working the room, she took prepared questions from students and posed for snapshots. Hundreds watched the event on a live, closed-circuit feed outside the hall; still more lined up outside.
Recalling the announcement of her nomination by President Barack Obama, Sotomayor remembers trailing the president and Vice President Joe Biden afterward, beseeching the taller men to walk slower so she could keep up. “They both simultaneously turned around and smiled,” she said. “At that moment, it felt like my spirit had left my body.”
The ensuing months were a test. Sotomayor encountered people who told her they doubted her ability, and that took a toll. “I wasn’t smart enough, that’s what I was told during the nomination process to the Supreme Court. … It feels demeaning and it is hurtful,” she said. “I really had a period of doubt.”
But she said prayer and the encouragement of friends helped her focus on her goal. “Choose your friends wisely,” she said, advising students to look for those “who try to do their best not for themselves, but for you. … I turned to friends who talked me out of my despair.”
One of those early doubters has since publicly apologized and recognized the quality of Sotomayor’s legal work. “That was exceedingly gratifying, and I thanked him for it,” she said.
Lifting the court curtain
Obama nominated Sotomayor because he said “extraordinary life experience was needed” on the court, said Notre Dame’s president, Father John I. Jenkins. Sotomayor said diverse life experience is valuable, but so are diverse legal backgrounds. There are no justices with backgrounds in criminal defense or family law, and only one who has practiced as a solo attorney, for instance.
In deciding cases, Sotomayor said she doesn’t subscribe to particular legal theories. She said terms such as “originalism,” “contextualism” and “living Constitution” often are adopted by broader political interests who apply them to promote outcomes that suit them. When justices subscribe to such theories, she said, that can predict outcomes.
She said she believes it’s important to interpret the Constitution through the filter of history and experience. She doesn’t believe in strict originalism championed chiefly by Justice Antonin Scalia that attempts to interpret the plain meaning of words in the Constitution during the Founders’ time.
“There are people like me and others who think this is a limited exercise because the Founders didn’t face the things we face today,” she said.
Sotomayor illuminated the court’s decision-making process. She said during conference, Chief Justice John Roberts will explain his position on a case and his legal reasoning. The next-senior justice, Scalia, either aligns with the chief or not, and explains his position. Continuing in reverse order of seniority, each justice states his or her position on the case. It’s rare but gratifying, she said, when a justice can be persuaded to change his or her view.
Thompson and others asked Sotomayor about dissents that in recent years have grown sharper, and whether this reflects the nation’s overall political polarization. “In some ways, the rest of the nation has looked to the judiciary” to shape views, Sotomayor said.
“We can get a bit excised,” she said. “We disagree with each other, but we do listen.”
It’s not surprising that dissents sometimes contain zingers. “What is a dissent? It’s someone who lost,” Sotomayor said. “You’re going to be a little more outspoken than if you won.”
Despite the rhetorical barbs, she said the justices maintain individual friendships and a respectful working relationship. The country’s political system would do well to mirror that aspect of the court, she said.
Sotomayor said past courts were famously combative. “One of my colleagues asked, ‘When did that stop?’” she said, to which Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg replied, “When you started having women” on the court. This was Sotomayor’s biggest applause line of her appearance, and there’s evidence it’s so.
Former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor instituted regular lunches with the justices and was known to check up on those who missed a few too many, Sotomayor recalled. And it was only when Ginsburg joined O’Connor on the court that women began to win significant gender discrimination cases, she said.
“The presence of women changed the rules in a certain way. There is a difference in sensitivity … when you have some diversity.”
7th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Ann Claire Williams said Sotomayor makes “a healing heart connection” with those she meets and is an inspiration as the first woman justice of color. Williams, also a Notre Dame alum and trustee, said she and Sotomayor “are sisters of the robe and heart.”
They share more than a passion for the federal judiciary. They both rose from humble beginnings and both drew their earliest inspiration from TV’s Perry Mason — “the only lawyer we knew,” Williams said.
“From the beginning, I knew she was going to be a star and a good judge,” said Williams, who moderated the event.
“I’m still not the best at a lot of things and I’ve come a long way in six years,” Sotomayor said. Her opinions are shorter, more persuasive. And after gaining a reputation for sometimes monopolizing oral arguments, she’s backed off, she added. Once second only to Scalia in terms of time questioning counsel, she’s now in the middle of the pack.
Her first case on the bench was Citizens United, the polarizing decision that permitted unlimited political campaign donations in which Sotomayor joined a dissent in the 5-4 decision. During oral argument in the case, “My knees were knocking loudly,” she said. She had to take deep breaths to steady herself.
“When I panic, what I have to do is remove myself from the panic inside of me and concentrate on the job I have to do,” she said. She knew court-watchers would be focused on her during the Citizens United oral argument. After she asked her first question, she said, “One colleague passed me a note that said, ‘aren’t you glad to be over that hump?’”
One of the toughest moments of the justice’s professional life, she recalled, was not getting an offer from the firm where she summered for two years while at Yale Law School. But she realized she hadn’t mastered the area of law she needed to. She changed her course, going to work for the district attorney’s office in New York, where she began her legal ascent.
“Yes, there are people who’ve lived charmed lives,” never having a setback, she said. “I measure my character by how many times I get up and try again.”
Asked about balancing the demands of work and family, Sotomayor said, “You can’t have it all. It’s a myth. … You can’t work 100 hours a week and think you’re going to be a perfect parent to your child.
“What you have to accept is life is a continuum,” she said. Sometimes work will demand time away from family, sometimes the opposite. Families that seem happiest and most engaged are those where children understand the importance of working mothers’ professional lives and are included whenever possible.
Sotomayor’s appearance follows her 2013 memoir, “My Beloved World,” that described her path to the court. She’s become more visible than some justices, appearing on “The Daily Show” — “to sell a book,” she qualified. As a teaching moment, she mediated a dispute between Goldilocks and Baby Bear on “Sesame Street.” She’s tossed out a first pitch at Yankee Stadium.
So her growing celebrity and accessibility is a difference, too. But Sotomayor said the nine members of the court do share a commonality. “I think every justice on that court is devoted to the court. … Each one of us cares deeply about the court’s institutional importance to society.”•