Sotomayor reflects on first years on court

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Author: Adam Liptak
Date: Feb. 1, 2011
Publisher: The New York Times Company
Document Type: Correction notice
Length: 1,072 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1170L

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CHICAGO -- Justice Sonia Sotomayor, speaking at a law school here on Monday, said she had ''taken heat'' at her Supreme Court confirmation hearings two summers ago in part because she was the first Hispanic nominee.

''People have views of me and expectations of me that are based on stereotypes,'' she said.

In her most candid and extensive public remarks since joining the court in 2009, Justice Sotomayor reflected on the advice she had received from colleagues, her discomfort with becoming a celebrity and the role public opinion plays in judicial decision making.

She offered advice to lawyers who appear before the court and to students who want to serve as law clerks there. And she criticized Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., saying his approach to matters of racial justice was too simplistic.

She spoke for 90 minutes at the University of Chicago Law School, answering questions from Prof. David A. Strauss and from students. A recurring theme was that the public still did not know her very well.

''People mistake exuberance, passion and intensity for self-confidence,'' she said.

She was asked if she had a special responsibility in cases concerning race, gender and class.

''I do think I have a special role on the court,'' the justice responded, ''but not in the way that you think.''

She said that she welcomed becoming a role model and noted that there had been ''a tremendous uptick'' in the number of Hispanic groups visiting the Supreme Court. Meeting with them, she said, is ''a priority for me.''

But she added that her background did not affect her judicial work. ''I don't come to the process as a woman of color, saying that I have to come to a decision that will help a specific group of people,'' she said.

On the other hand, she said she disagreed with Chief Justice Roberts's approach to cases concerning racial equality. In a 2007 opinion in a decision limiting the use of race to achieve public school integration, Chief Justice Roberts wrote that ''the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.''

That approach, Justice Sotomayor said, was ''too simple.''

''I don't borrow Chief Justice Roberts's description of what colorblindness is,'' she said. ''Our society is too complex to use that kind of analysis.''

That was, however, the sole suggestion of tension on the court. Much of the balance of Justice Sotomayor's remarks sought to correct what she called the misimpression that there is animosity among the justices.

''The public sometimes thinks the justices don't like each other because they read our opinions and see the barbs going back and forth,'' she said.

The reality, she continued, was captured in advice she received soon after joining the court from Justice David H. Souter, whom she succeeded. Justice Souter said the key to a pleasant life on the court was realizing that every justice was acting in good faith.

She also recalled the advice she got after congratulating Justice John Paul Stevens, who retired last year, on one of his opinions even as she expressed doubts that she would ever be able to match the quality of his work.

''Sonia, I wasn't born a justice,'' Justice Stevens said, Justice Sotomayor recalled. ''I've had many, many years. You have all the skills to be a great justice, but you have to develop them and grow into them.''

Asked whether the cloistered life of a judge was hard for her, she pushed back, saying there were days she wished her life were a little quieter.

''I do miss being a little anonymous,'' she said. In New York, where she served as a trial and appeals court judge for 17 years, she said, ''I would throw on my sweats and run across the street to get my coffee.'' That is impossible now, she said.

Justice Sotomayor did not have much to say about how she approached the law, though she expressed some skepticism about two of Justice Antonin Scalia's legal touchstones.

She said was ''not sure'' how helpful it was to try to discern and apply the original meaning of the Constitution, which is Justice Scalia's approach. And she said it could be helpful to consider statements from members of Congress in interpreting ambiguous statutes, a position Justice Scalia rejects. Those statements, called legislative history, are ''part of the toolbox,'' Justice Sotomayor said.

She said she preferred law clerks who were passionate about just one or two things and was skeptical of elaborate resumes. ''I don't look at the kid who has a thousand things on their list,'' she said.

''I rarely if ever look at people's political choices,'' she added. ''Sometimes it's unavoidable.''

She sounded intrigued by a suggestion she had heard the night before at dinner with a judge on the federal appeals court here, who said he made it a point to hire one law clerk with a scientific or technical background. She did not name the judge, but Judge Richard A. Posner has spoken about doing that.

She said she found friend-of-the-court briefs valuable, and she said she liked lawyers who were prepared to discuss not only why their client should win but also the broader consequences of given rulings.

Oral arguments are an opportunity for lawyers to correct misunderstandings and to address the questions that most trouble the justices, she said. ''A second purpose for oral argument is for judges to hear what's bothering each other,'' she said, adding that she tailors her own reasoning at the justices' private conference to take account of what she has heard from her colleagues at arguments.

She said the court did not take public opinion into account in its rulings. At the same time, she said, the court is seldom out of step with the public.

''On the vast majority of cases,'' she said, ''I bet we're right with them.''

Online Correction: January 31, 2011, Monday

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: A caption on a picture an earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the moderator of the University of Chicago Law School event at which Justice Sonia Sotomayor spoke. The moderator was Prof. David A. Strauss, not Dean Michael H. Schill.


PHOTO: Justice Sonia Sotomayor spoke Monday at the University of Chicago Law School. Prof. David A. Strauss was the moderator. (PHOTOGRAPH BY SALLY RYAN FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES)

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