Sotomayor Suggests More Listening In Politics | WGLT

Sotomayor Suggests More Listening In Politics

Mar 8, 2016

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor encouraged students to overcome their fear of new challenges.
Credit Commonwealth Club / Creative Commons

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor became the latest public figure to lament the negative tone of the presidential contests. Without mentioning any candidate or party by name, Sotomayor suggested the candidates do more listening and less attacking.

Speaking Monday at the University of Illinois College of Law, Sotomayor said her colleagues on the court manage to strongly disagree, and still remain respectful of one another's positions.

"You may not like what they're proposing, that doesn't mean they're doing it from an evil motive," the justice said. Despite disagreements, she said, the justices can still "see the goodness" in one another.

She described the high court as a family, and said it has been "a very sad experience for all of us" to look over at the late Justice Antonin Scalia's black-draped chair on the bench since his sudden death last month. She said Scalia once jokingly referred to her as a "pitbull," and she in turn, she said, loved him like a brother, who "at moments I wanted to kill."

Justice Sotomayor ventured no opinion on whether President Obama should nominate the next justice before his term ends. College of Law Dean Vikram Amar said he didn't expect the justice to weigh in on that hot-button issue.

"Justices develop quickly a sense of what topics they should not comment on," Amar said. He said asking her opinion on that question would not have been appropriate.

Sotomayer took questions for about an hour in a freewheeling discussion that included recollections about her family, her inability to dance well, her time in the New York District Attorney's office and as an appellate judge.

Sotomayer said her brother is an allergist, and her sister-in-law and mother are nurses, so her small niece once asked her "who do you take care of?" She said she she responded, "I take care of people with problems."

Public audio and video of the presentation were not allowed, but Sotomayor mingled easily with the students, often stopping to put her arms around them, shake hands and pose for pictures. The justice is the court's first Latina. She grew up in a housing project in New York City, the daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants. She went on to graduate from Princeton University and Yale Law School.

She told students she often approached milestones in her career with a sense of trepidation, but urged them not to let their fears deter them from taking on a challenge.

The justice quoted her 88-year-old mother and role model, whom she said often tells her, "I'm falling apart but I'm still having fun."

Sotomayor told the law school students the most important quality they can have as attorneys is integrity. She said the best arguments before the high court are made by lawyers who are honest about the evidence, don't try to manipulate it, overstate the facts or understate precedence.

She said one of the biggest surprises of being named to the court is the public attention given to justices. "Celebrities are looking for me!" she said with some incredulity. Some of her colleagues on the court, she said, respond to the notoriety by becoming more reclusive.

She urged a packed audience at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts to regard the justices as "human beings" who are inevitably likely to disappoint them one day because of a decision. "That is the nature of judging," she said.

Amar, the law college dean, said he had gotten to know some of the Supreme Court justices 25 hears ago when he clerked for the court as a law student. "They were great people, but I don't think one of them had the charm that Justice Sotomayor does."  He described her as "incredibly warm and gracious [and] obviously brilliant."

Editors note: Audio recording of Sotomayor was permitted, but on air playback of the audio was not permitted as part of reporting of this story.