Supreme Court’s Sotomayor says justices follow rule of law, not partisan politics
For more than a half-hour before the audience at Duquesne University was able to stand in resounding applause Friday for the guest of honor, its members weren’t allowed to stand at all.
Those were the playful orders of a sitting United States Supreme Court justice.
Pointing to the security around the perimeter of the A.J. Palumbo Center, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the first Latina justice in the court’s history, joked that for her to come down into the audience and answer questions face-to-face, there should be no sudden movements.
“They are here to try to protect me from myself,” the justice said, prompting a burst of laughter. “They don’t like me walking among you, but I like doing it.”
Then the 64-year-old justice circled the arena, shaking hands, hugging students, and answering their questions intimately and directly — in addition to speaking fervently about the court’s purpose in such a politically divisive time.
Asked how she thinks the recent contentious nomination process of Justice Brett Kavanaugh had impacted the perception of the court, if at all, Justice Sotomayor said she worries that the public views the process as partisan, something that could “diminish the integrity” of the court.
She echoed a recent statement from Chief Justice John Roberts that touched on judicial independence, saying that justices do not belong to a president or party, but “to something very different, and much more important to us, and that is to the rule of law.”
“You know, Justice [Ruth Bader] Ginsburg and Justice [Stephen] Breyer were confirmed by
90-plus votes,” she added. “It’d be nice if we could get back there some day, isn’t it?”
The intimate and candid Q&A followed a discussion on stage that was moderated by Duquesne President Ken Gormley and 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Marjorie Rendell. So many people wanted to attend the event, Mr. Gormley said, that Duquesne had to move it from the campus ballroom to the basketball arena.
On stage, Justice Soyomayor told stories and personal anecdotes from her time on the bench — something she never thought would be possible as a “little girl from the Bronx.” Off stage, on the floor of the arena, she did a full circle, maintaining in-depth conversations with some students while shaking the hands of other audience members.
Nominated by former President Barack Obama and confirmed in 2009, Justice Sotomayor talked of the importance of having female voices on the court, which she said has made people more sensitive to “issues that impact women disproportionately or unevenly.”
She also shared a story about fellow Justice Ginsburg, who once chimed in during a conversation about the court’s history of rancor and anger between justices.
“Some of my colleagues were attributing it to to one or another chief justice, and again, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in a soft voice in the corner said, ‘It’s when women came to the court,’” she recalled.
Dismissing those in politics who label certain justices conservative or liberal, Justice Sotomayor said justices differ in how they approach judicial interpretation — and that even though people may be able to predict how the justices are going to vote in a particular case, “You can’t take that as something that’s conservative or liberal in political terms.”
“When you look at our split decisions, yes, there are more common 5-to-4 [decisions] that seem to repeat themselves, but there’s always exceptions,” she said.
“There’s always someone who crossed whatever their predicted pattern might be and joined a different four to make a five.”
Asked by a student about what she’d say to those who are told they’re where they are only because of affirmative action, Justice Sotomayor quipped to applause, “It doesn’t matter how I got in. What matters is what I do when I’m in.”
After coming face-to-face with an 8-year-old girl who was dressed as her, she took the stage to receive the Carol Los Mansmann Award for Distinguished Public Service.
Then, she was given a No. 21 Pittsburgh Pirates jersey with her last name on the back — signifying Roberto Clemente — by the Puerto Rican-born baseball legend’s son, Roberto Clemente Jr., a surprise guest.
Moments earlier, the Puerto Rican justice had hugged a student who was awarded Duquesne’s Roberto Clemente Endowed Scholarship for freshman Hispanic students, remarking on the late Pittsburgh Pirate’s impact on the world.
“The idea that his humanity extended to helping people in another disaster area tells you a lot about his character,” Justice Sotomayor said to the student. “He is someone that I think would be very proud of you today.”
Talking of the hardships facing the island after two hurricanes hit during the same month in 2017, she said, “I would wish that there would be more help. We need it. We, the island, need it. And we have given much to America. We are American citizens.”
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor kisses a stuffed animal dressed in robes given to her by Harlie Donnelly of Franklin Park, center, who was dressed as the justice. Justice Sotomayor spoke on her life and career Friday at A.J. Palumbo Center at Duquesne University, Uptown.