Justice Sotomayor visits Anchorage

Justice Sonia Sotomayor at the Dena'ina Center in Anchorage. (Hillman/Alaska Public)
Justice Sonia Sotomayor at the Dena’ina Center in Anchorage. (Hillman/Alaska Public)

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor spoke in Anchorage on Wednesday to a crowd of 1,200 people. While answering preset questions, she spoke about how being nominated to the high court transformed her life, and how different experiences can affect a ruling.

“You have to understand,” she told the crowd. “You get nominated to the Supreme Court, and it’s a like a rocket ship that takes you to the moon. And it doesn’t take you back.”

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor was nominated to the Supreme Court in 2009. She said the process was painful because people publicly called her harsh and questioned her intelligence.

“There’s a point where you can take a certain amount of it and others where you say, ‘Is it really worth destroying a lifetime of what I had thought was a great reputation? And so yes, I had a lot of second thoughts.”

She strongly considered backing out until her friends helped her realize she couldn’t act of out of fear and hurt. “Because I think those feelings, both fear and hurt, drive all of us to bad decisions.”

Among the downsides of being on the court are she misses her privacy and her ability to get together with family on a whim. Even at the grocery store, she said she is never out of the public eye, and though she’s an extrovert, that’s hard.

“I went from being a person that could choose when I wanted to be in the front of the classroom or the back of the classroom. That could walk the streets and observe people and their lives and look at them and learn, just from observing. To a person who is always at the front of the room. And I’m no longer given a choice.”

For Sotomayor, learning from a diversity of life experiences is what makes a strong court. It helps the judges see cases from different perspectives and base their decisions on all of the facts, not just ones they are predisposed to see, she said.

“By my druthers I think the variety of both professional and life experiences helps to ensure that when we’re talking and conferencing cases, that we’re not missing anything.”

She said for her, diversity means more than just differences in gender and ethnic identity, and in some ways, the current members of the Court are all very similar. All of the current justices have ivy league educations, are Catholic or Jewish, and most are from the East Coast.

“But is it enough [difference], for a court that’s being asked to judge everything that comes through the legal system throughout the United States?” she said, pausing. “I don’t think so.”

For Sotomayor, it was hard on both a personal and a professional level to cope with the loss of Justice Antonin Scalia’s perspective when he died earlier this year.

She described him as a fun, witty older brother who would say the most annoying things. He was also an active participant in oral arguments. After he passed, she said she would fill the new silences with questions.

“I had to start containing myself and start living with the slightly longer silences,” she recalled.

Anne Hillman is the healthy communities editor at Alaska Public Media and a host of Hometown, Alaska. Reach her at ahillman@alaskapublic.org. Read more about Anne here.

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