Sotomayor talks Supreme Court scrutiny, offers advice

  • By DJ SUMMERS
  • Thursday, August 18, 2016 7:22pm
  • News

Life on a changing Supreme Court comes with fame and criticism, but it’s a little quieter without recently deceased Antonin Scalia, according to Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

Sotomayor stopped for a visit in Anchorage during a statewide tour she’s folded into the court’s summer vacation as part of her mission to visit each of the 50 U.S. states. The Alaska Bar Association booked the event at the Dena’ina Center for a crowd half full of the Last Frontier’s lawyers and half full of Sotomayor’s admirers.

U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Morgan Christen, a former Alaska Supreme Court justice, moderated the discussion with Sotomayor from a list of questions submitted by Alaska Bar Association members and the general public, more of them veering into personal territory than political.

Justice Scalia’s death on Feb. 14 put the Supreme Court at the center of a national political battle with issues including race and the death penalty upcoming before the court during a presidential election. Congressional Republican leadership, worried of another liberal judge shifting the court’s balance, has refused to consider President Barack Obama’s nominee Merrick Garland.

The court will likely still have eight members when it begins its next session on Oct. 3.

Those attorneys and politicos looking for hints at current Supreme Court direction found no thought fodder, however. Sotomayor, appointed by Obama in 2009 as the third woman and first Hispanic justice in U.S. history, spent less of her time talking about the court than her reaction to sitting on it.

For the duration of the meeting, Sotomayor strolled through the audience shaking hands as a half a dozen Secret Service agents watched from the room’s edges for sudden movements.

“Don’t stand up,” she’d told the crowd before she waded in.

Sotomayor did not directly answer a question about how the court has changed since Scalia’s death. Mostly, she said, the court is “less fun” and quieter without him around. Scalia was known for his forays into oral arguments and in his absence Sotomayor said she found herself speaking more to fill the void.

“He was a big brother who sometimes said the most annoying things and we disagreed a lot in writing,” she said, “But he was fun. And he was witty. And he was also an extrovert. We acknowledged that in each other. He was curious about the world. Sometimes he would bring up facts nobody else in the room knew… He was entertaining, gregarious, generous when he felt you were in need. He cared.”

As the first Latina and third woman justice, Sotomayor has received both praise and public rebuke since 2009, the former for adding diversity to the court and the second for being appointed for diversity’s sake rather than aptitude.

In Anchorage, she expressed some resentment at her detractors and the sheer breadth of attention she garnered, saying the constant criticism “got to my stomach” and made her waver on accepting the nomination.

“I was reading about how harsh I was, how tough I was, and that I really wasn’t smart,” she said. “Is this really worth destroying a lifetime of what I had thought was a great reputation?”

Accept she did, however, and she said she credits her diversity on the court as a paramount issue, though she clarifies it’s diversity of experience the court needs, not diversity of appearance.

“I don’t define diversity by ethnicity or gender alone,” she said. “I worry a lot about our Supreme Court today. We have all Ivy Leaguers, myself included. We have four New Yorkers. We have people from Washington, D.C., New Jersey. We have nobody from the Midwest. We have no Protestants.”

The court, she said, needs people from different experiences to capture the broadest knowledge and perspective base possible. The Supreme Court judges have to become expert in each case they decide, and need all the outside information they can use.

“You’re asking a judge to become a master of basically every human endeavor there is,” she said. “We have to become a specialist enough to answer the questions the experts can’t. I think you want people involved in the enterprise who really know as much of the world as they can.”

To that end, Sotomayor said the growing number of women on the court has played a role in not only better decisions but better relationships between judges overall.

Not only did fellow judges Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Sandra Day O’Connor bring about the first Supreme Court decisions in favor of a woman’s claim, but they changed the reputation for divisiveness. O’Connor insisted judges eat together for every meal, Sotomayor said, and scolded those who blew it off.

Apart from matters of court membership and values, Sotomayor answered a litany of questions about her experiences being appointed.

“Getting nominated to the Supreme Court is like getting onto a rocket ship that takes you to the moon,” she said. “And it doesn’t take you back.”

Aside from media and political scrutiny, she talked about the level of attention the general public pays her. She told tales of people flocking to her at rooftop parties, in restaurants and in grocery stores asking for advice or selfies.

“I miss my privacy a lot,” she said. “I went from being a person that could choose when I could be in the front of the classroom or the back of the classroom … to a person who’s up to the front of the room. I’m no longer given a choice. That kind of attention can be very seductive.”

For the attorneys who invited her, Sotomayor had two pieces of advice among the stories, imploring lawyers to make written briefs as clear as possible and to find an emotional angle to cases. She told a story about advice from a supervising attorney after a more experienced attorney had beaten her in court twice in a row against the same defendant.

Finding a way to make the story interesting and to convince the jury of a moral obligation, she said, was her favorite part of the job.

“I loved being a trial lawyer,” she said. “I loved being a trial judge. When and if I retire, I’m not going to sit on a court of appeals. I’m going to try cases.”

DJ Summers can be reached at daniel.summers@alaskajournal.com.

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