Sotomayor laments the ‘partisanship that has racked our country’ in University of Alabama address
Supreme Court of the United States Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor addressed students of the University of Alabama School of Law this week.
Sotomayor, in this year’s installment of the storied Albritton Lecture Series, appeared remotely on Tuesday due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
UA School of Law Dean Mark Brandon opened the virtual event and introduced the Honorable William Harold Albritton, III, a senior judge of the United States District Court for the Middle District of Alabama. Albritton, appointed by President George H.W. Bush in 1991, served as chief judge of that court from 1998-2004. He is a graduate of the University of Alabama and its School of Law.
Sotomayor’s appearance came in a question-and-answer format rather than a traditional lecture.
Albritton, posing the first question, noted to Sotomayor — a 2009 appointee of President Barack Obama — that the nation has recently heard much about the great friendship between the late Justices Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, despite their ideological differences. Albritton asked Sotomayor to comment “on the importance and role of camaraderie” within the membership of SCOTUS.
“Judge, maybe I’d like to say that I’m glad that the Court sets an example that our society seems to be lacking a bit today,” she responded. “The partisanship that has racked our country shows the need for the Court to set an example of how people can disagree passionately but still agreeably.”
“And by that I mean if you read Justice Ginsburg’s opinions and Justice Scalia’s, or Scalia’s and mine, or mine with some of my other colleagues, we are really passionate about our disagreement. We’re marshaling all the weapons of judicial interpretation, wielding them as swords against each other in our writing; and yet, virtually every one of us with each other is a friend,” she continued. “And not just in name but in actual caring.”
Sotomayor recounted that Scalia “sent roses to Justice Ginsburg on her birthday until the year he died.”
“They traveled the world together,” she noted of Ginsburg and Scalia, before explaining that “acts of kindness” displayed between that famed duo “are shared” between other justices, as well.
“Clarence Thomas, when my stepfather died, the first set of flowers that I received were from him and his wife, Ginni,” Sotomayor noted. “Justice [Stephen] Breyer, who doesn’t have that much of a difference with Justice Ginsburg, but when her husband was in the hospital, Justice Breyer arranged to have food sent to her every day, because Justice Ginsburg’s husband was the cook in the family. And when he was sick, he was afraid she wasn’t going to eat.”
“Those stories of kindnesses, of personal relationships, of dinners together — they’re not just make-believe stories. They’re genuine acts of caring about each other,” she stressed.
“And how can we do that? Because that’s really the question,” Sotomayor continued. “How can you be friends with someone whom you personally disagree with so vehemently? It’s pretty easy if you start from the following proposition: every human being has goodness in them. The people you most strongly disagree with probably are as committed and loving to their families as you are to yours. The people you most vehemently disagree with do acts of kindness for others. The people you most vehemently disagree with are not bad people because you disagree. They may be wrong — and I tell my colleagues often they are. But I don’t translate that view with mistaking that they’re not human beings and good people of good intent.”
Of her colleagues, the justice advised, “They are as passionate about the law and their belief in our system of government and the constitution as I am. We may have different views about what the right answer is, but their views are born from that same passion.”
Sotomayor then jumped from SCOTUS as an example of bipartisan friendships to one between former U.S. Senate colleagues (who ended up on opposing presidential tickets in 2008).
“And if we could look at each other that way, we can have relationships like John McCain and Joe Biden,” she added, saying “they were devoted friends” from “different sides of the aisle.”
“How can you do that? Very easily — if you can respect each other and respect the fact that you can disagree but still be agreeable to each other as human beings,” Sotomayor remarked.
The justice concluded, “I’m glad that the Court sets that example, Judge. I think you are, too. And it’s an example that I wish more of the country would follow.”
Watch her full answer to the question here.
The University of Alabama School of Law’s Albritton Lecture Series was established by Judge Albritton and is supported by The Albritton Fund, created in the 1970s by his family, which includes four generations of UA School of Law graduates. The series, before Sotomayor’s address, had already hosted 11 Supreme Court of the United States justices and three foreign chief justices.
Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn