Even after six years, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor revealed she still doesn’t feel like she belongs on the nation’s most powerful bench.
Sotomayor, the first Hispanic ever nominated to serve on SCOTUS, visited Notre Dame University last week for a conversation with NBC correspondent and Notre Dame graduate Anne Thompson. For two hours, in front of a student-packed concert hall, the justice reflected on her experience deliberating on some of the most momentous issues in the nation. Participating in one particular case, Citizens United v. FEC, was “incredibly gratifying,” she said.
Yet, though she has made history and played a significant part in such far reaching decisions, Sotomayor told the audience that she still feels like an outcast among her fellow justices:
The crowd was taken aback when Sotomayor responded “no” after Thompson asked if she felt as if she “belonged” on the Court.
“I am different and yet I’m not because we’re all engaged in the same enterprise. We’re all trying to come to the right decisions together, and we’re all part of that conversation,” she said. “To that extent, I belong. But will I ever quite feel that I have their same background, their same understanding of the world that I operate on? Not really.”
The lack of diversity on the Supreme Court was a common theme of their conversation. Sotomayor also went into detail, for instance, about how the justices’ professional and religious backgrounds could use a bit more variety:
“We have a bunch of lawyers on the court, none of whom have done any serious criminal defense work, all of them prosecutors, only one civil rights lawyer, and only one justice who has practiced law alone.” Observing that there were six Catholics and three Jews on the Court, she said, “That’s not the majority of America.”
I found it particularly interesting that Sotomayor made that remark at a predominantly Catholic university.
One move that has helped bridge some gaps on the court, she noted, was the introduction of females:
“The court might have been a slight step ahead of the society when it came to race inequality; it was ten steps behind society when it came to gender inequality. I’m not saying that it was only the presence of women, but I am saying that the presence of women does change the conversation a little bit. … There is a difference in sensitivity in the way you address things when you have some diversity on the Court.”
Sotomayor did acknowledge, however, that her gender and ethnicity does not automatically qualify her for the job:
"I don't think I'm really given permission, based on just being a Latina just being a woman, to make judgments," she said. "I have to take into account not only my life experiences but those of my colleagues who are explaining their positions to me."
Sotomayor’s frankness is not something we typically see from the Supreme Court. There was that time Antonin Scalia offered a rare and intriguing interview to New York Magazine, where he remarked upon topics like the afterlife, his love of Seinfeld and his adoration for hunting.
Good luck getting such candidness from Justice Thomas.
Final note: Despite the justices’ differences, Sotomayor offered a glimmer of hope that the nine powerful players at least don’t tune each other out when they disagree.
“We disagree with each other, but we do listen,” she said. “We try to persuade each other, we try to convince each other, and often we fail.
“The challenge is to make friends who don’t agree with you, who try to talk you out of your mistakes, who try to change your mind. Whether they succeed or not is irrelevant – you learn something from them.”