Sotomayor Sounds Off: How the lack of professional diversity is hurting the high court

Wednesday, June 3, 2015 - 12:23

In a warm and engaging fashion, the first Hispanic on the U.S. Supreme Court embraced the idea of more diversity on the nation’s high court and quickly underscored she was talking beyond racial and gender differences.

Associate Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Ronald Cass, dean emeritus of Boston University School of Law, spoke at the ABA Section of International Law Spring Conference.

Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor told a crowded ballroom at the American Bar Association Section of International Law 2015 Spring Meeting that the Supreme Court should have a broader representation of experience and practice among its nine members. “To me, diversity on the Court should mean diversity of professional experience, and that we are sorely missing,” she said. “[There’s] not much experience with small or medium-sized firms,” Sotomayor continued. “We don’t have as much experience with our practice areas. We have a lot of prosecutors on that Court . . . one solicitor general. Those deficits, I think, hurt the perception of the court. It makes people feel that we are not truly representing the views of the entire profession or the views of the country. And I think that is to a detriment.”

Related video: Justice Sotomayor discusses her career, other topics

Sotomayor was the featured speaker Thursday, April 30, at SIL’s annual spring session, held this year at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. The justice, the first appointee of President Obama, who assumed her role in August 2009, engaged in a 40-minute conversation with Ronald Cass, dean emeritus of Boston University School of Law, who runs a legal consultancy in the D.C. area.

The wide-ranging conversation touched upon some of Sotomayor’s personal exchanges with fellow justices; her career as a private attorney, prosecutor and jurist; and her reflections on being one of nine on the nation’s court of final resort. As expected, Cass and Sotomayor stayed away from discussing any pending cases before the Court.

Sotomayor, a former assistant district attorney in New York and the lone justice with state court experience, urged the ABA and other organizations to lobby “very heavily” for presidents to look more widely for Supreme Court nominees. While eight of the nine justices have served on the federal appellate level, Sotomayor said her state experience as a prosecutor gives her a “different perspective” from her colleagues.

Besides serving as a prosecutor for five years, Sotomayor also litigated international commercial matters for a New York firm before President George H.W. Bush nominated her in 1991 to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. In 1998, President Bill Clinton elevated her to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York.

“The toughest, toughest transition was from being a lawyer to being a district court judge,” she said, in response to a question from Cass, adding that was because of the “diversity of legal issues that a district court judge deals with, added to the rules and regulations pertaining to different procedural steps.”

Sotomayor also discussed her 2013 book, My Beloved World, in which she recounts the steps in her life from growing up in a Bronx housing project to climbing the federal bench. She said she decided to write the book after meeting with many groups during her first year on the high court and encountering “lots of personal questions.”

“I started realizing people had as much interest in my personal side as they had in my legal side,” said Sotomayor, who won honors at Princeton University and Yale Law School before embarking on her career. She said “probably the most important reason for writing the book was because I was overwhelmed,” and it served as a way to keep both feet on the ground as she “catapulted from relative anonymity to a world stage.”

Sotomayor, considered one of four liberals on the Court, offered an insight as to why justices, who are often sharply divided, still have so many unanimous decisions — which she pegged at 60 percent. Many of those decisions, she explained, involve statutory interpretation, and the legal answer might not be clear. “What the bar and industry needs is a clear answer,” she said, adding, “It is not uncommon in statutory cases for a justice to say, ‘I’ll swallow a dissent, or I will dissent silently’.”

She also provided a glimpse of her relationship with Justice Antonin Scalia, the 79-year-old leader of the conservative bloc, who is known to have strong friendships with Sotomayor, 60, and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, at 82 the dean of the liberal bloc.

“Nino Scalia, at one point, was hounded by me on one case and Ruth on another,” Sotomayor recounted. “And he looked at me and he said, ‘you know why I love you? You are a bulldog. You put your head down and push right in. She yaps at me.’ “

Reprinted with permission from the American Bar Association.