The first I ever heard of Sonia Sotomayor, I was having drinks with some progressive law professors and they were basically trashing her. They thought she’d be a likely Barack Obama Supreme Court nominee, and while they allowed that she was a demographically appealing Puerto Rican woman who’d likely reach the correct conclusions on points of constitutional and statutory interpretation, she wasn’t “brilliant” enough for their tastes. This struck me as a possibly sexist viewpoint to take, but I also thought sort of a viewpoint that was besides the point. The Court plays a quasi-political role, and insofar as the justices do something important other than vote the right way, it’s act as public figures who articulate a point of view. And here the essence of the problem is less to wow law professors than it is to engage persuasively with citizens. The kind of person who makes a successful law professor say, “wow she’s be a really great law professor!” isn’t really the same as the kind of person who’d be a great justice.
And as a great David Fontana piece at TNR explains, that’s exactly what Sotomayor has done on the bench, using her standing as a Supreme Court justice to address not only narrow legal arguments but also broader audiences:
Many newspapers reported about her June appearance sponsored by the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation where Sotomayor “open[ed] up about her diabetes” with “heartfelt remarks.” Two days before that, they covered Sotomayor throwing out the first pitch at Wrigley Field (appropriately wearing a Cubs jersey rather than a jersey of her beloved Yankees). Sotomayor is also at work on a book—but not one on legal theory. Instead, her publisher has revealed that it is a “coming-of-age memoir by an American daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants.”
What’s more, while some of her colleagues are known for communicating their messages primarily to elite audiences, Sotomayor has been speaking to a range of groups. She shared her perspective about persistent barriers to equality with audiences at several elite law schools and with a community college in the Bronx that helped her mother become a nurse several decades ago. During a visit in which she judged a moot court proceeding involving law students at Berkeley, Sotomayor also made a visit to a local elementary school with a commitment to diversity and a prominent foreign language program. She has also regularly visited with various groups who have come to see the Supreme Court, from special needs children to senior citizens to veterans.
I think that’s good stuff. Supreme Court justices have relatively little in the way of formal incentives to show hustle or to expand the appeal of their brand. But Sotomayor appears to have genuine passion for her public role, and is articulating her vision not just to law professors who’ve made up their minds already, but to the kind of people who need to hear from role models and iconic figures.