In Fairbanks, Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor says country, not court, has become more politicized

FAIRBANKS — Congress could take a lesson in working together from the Supreme Court, Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor told an audience here Sunday.

Sotomayor, 62, spoke to an audience in the Davis Concert Hall at the University of Alaska Fairbanks after touring the state for 10 days. She didn't share much about her visit, other than noting that the earrings she was wearing Sunday night were bought in Alaska.

But she gave the crowd insight into her personal past and present philosophies, talked about politics and legal history, and shared stories of unlikely friendships at the Supreme Court.

Sotomayor took pre-submitted questions for nearly two hours. For most of that time, she was on her feet, moving around the auditorium, quietly shaking hands with audience members along the edges, occasionally stopping to dole out a hug.

Asked about today's highly divisive political environment in Congress, Sotomayor said that the second branch could take a lesson from the justices, who know that they are forced to make decisions.

"We understand if we take our disagreements as personal attacks then we won't be able to function as a group," Sotomayor said.

Twice during her talk, Sotomayor pointedly noted that the court "functions best" with nine members. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died suddenly in February, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell R-Kentucky and Republican leadership have said they will not consider President Barack Obama's pick to replace him and will instead wait until there is a new president next year. The court is thus limited to eight members.


When one justice uses biting or sarcastic language — usually in a dissenting opinion for the minority — the judges all know that is "borne of passion," and not personal, she said.

Sotomayor said she does not believe that fundamental disagreements about the law make one side more moral than the other, but represents a different viewpoint.

And being able to listen to those alternate viewpoints is what Sotomayor thinks is missing from politics today, she said. The justice said she often watches "talking heads" on news channels and wonders, "Is anybody listening?"

Just look to Scalia and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who rarely agreed in the court, "and they were the best of friends," Sotomayor said.

Sotomayor, considered to the left on the court, said she has a deep admiration for conservative Justice Clarence Thomas. Thomas is the "only justice who knows the names of every employee" in the building, and their spouses, she said.

On the flip side, Sotomayor disagreed with the contention of one question, that there is a "growing politicization of the court."

It is the country, not the court, that has become more politicized, Sotomayor said. The court doesn't create the contentious issues that they must answer to, she said. Laws do. And as our society has passed more laws, and made new social judgements — about drugs and assisted suicide, for example — the court eventually is asked to deal with the resulting questions.

Throughout her speech, Sotomayor spoke about her respect for varied outlooks on the law — held by those whose cases she tries, and often by other Supreme Court justices.

In all cases before the high court, Sotomayor says, the justices face a burden: "No matter what decision I make, I'm going to hurt someone else," she said. In all cases that land before the Supreme Court, she said, parties are equal in their passion and sense of rightness.

To take that away from someone is "a huge burden," she said. In her time as a judge on federal district and appeals courts, "I didn't know how much comfort I took in knowing there was a court above me," until she was on the nation's highest court, she said.

Erica Martinson

Erica Martinson is a former reporter for the Anchorage Daily News based in Washington, D.C.