Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor said the cases brought before her are “on the cutting edge of law.” When reasonable people disagree, that means “the issue is hard” and it’s up to the nation’s highest court to make a decision resulting in the law moving in a particular direction, she told Rabbi Lyle Fishman of Ohr Kodesh Congregation. The two spoke on May 20. What follows are some highlights.
Judges need to check their biases
“Clearly, your life experiences inform how you see things,” said Sotomayor, who is the court’s third woman, first woman of color and first Latina.
This is why it’s necessary for some courts to have multiple judges, she said.
“We assume that different perspectives will bring different insights. And so there is no question that that happens. Whether anyone can identify in that particular moment how that is happening is the more difficult question, and it is the hard part that a decision-maker will have to make.”
As an example, she recalled Justice Stephen Breyer commenting during a case that a person would only own two phones for criminal activity. And Sotomayor turned to him and said that the lawyers in the room and many government employees all have two phones, one for work and another for personal use.
“And I realized at that moment, as has happened so many times being present with other judges hearing cases, that we unconsciously make assumptions about human behavior because of our experiences and that we often need others to remind us of that.”
In another case Sotomayor had to check herself from favoring one side because the attorney was similar in appearance and mannerisms to her grandfather.
Compassion and justice
How does a judge balance compassion with justice, Fishman asked Sotomayor, reflecting on the balance God must make in Jewish theology.
To remain compassionate, Sotomayor said she spends a lot of time in every case thinking about what the loser might feel, because that’s as important to her as what the law requires for the winner.
In that way, she can be “conscious of the throne of mercy,” she said, referring to the Jewish metaphor.
On the other hand, Sotomayor said it’s difficult to be compassionate in a courtroom because she’s judging a person, not in relation to herself, but to society. She said it is society who brings the claims against the individual in the cases she sees.
“I can forgive, but can society? Because in many ways I don’t speak for society. Society is the other side that is coming to me,” Sotomayor said. “My mercy can take away from their claims, and so because I don’t play the Almighty, it is a fine line to walk for a judge in a civil case.”
Friends with opposing views
“Often people will ask, how can you be friends with [the other justices]?”
Sotomayor, who has served on the court since 2009, said she approaches most of her life prepared to put herself in the shoes of others.
“I look for the good in them, and there’s good in all of them, and I assume there is no malintent.”
Sotomayor said all justices share the same passion for the law, even if they may have different perspectives and interpretations.