Supreme Court’s So­tomayor says jus­tices fol­low rule of law, not par­ti­san pol­i­tics

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - - Front Page - By Ju­lian Routh

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.”

Michael M. San­ti­ago/Post-Gazette

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.

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