Recently, I observed an evening with Supreme Court Justice Sonja Sotomayor at the Old Naval Hospital in Washington, D.C.
The facility now known as Hill Center is no longer a hospital. It was built on Pennsylvania Avenue in 1864 and has not been used as a medical building since 1906. After a fresh renovation which began in 2010, it has become a cultural center similar in purpose to Hutchins Street Square.
The audience at this event was composed of a variety of interested folks from lawyers to a museum security guard. All had a common interest as to how the 2009 Obama-nominated Justice saw her job on the Court.
As you might expect, politically, Washington is basically a one-track town. Most if not all of the people in the room leaned left. Interestingly, those who asked questions from the crowd all were dependent on some sort of government job.
Sotomayor is certainly no conservative, but she may have opened some eyes when it comes to respecting points of view different from her own. She surprised the group with many unexpected answers.
The program got to the root of things when the experienced legal scholar called the late Associate Justice Atonin Scalia “my dear colleague and friend.” This stirred the crowd, and a question came from liberal radio talk show host Bill Press. He apparently could not understand the implications of this bond.
In so many words, he curiously asked how she could befriend a conservative justice who was perceived as an obstacle to left-wing politics.
Her answer was not what one would expect. In her congenial and calm fashion, Sotomayor replied that we all want what’s best for the country.
However, different people may see things differently as to how to reach this objective.
She mentioned Scalia’s strong points. He liked people, was a devoted family man and had a great sense of humor. She also pointed out that Scalia’s best friend on the Court was Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg — its most liberal member. Sotomayor indicated that it might surprise people in the room that she and Scalia agreed on important decisions 75 percent of the time.
One person asked about the constitutional conflict between justices who are “originalists” and those who believe in the so-called “living/breathing” document. While some may lean in one direction or the other, Sotomayor said she did not believe there were true hard-core believers on either side, and gave examples to illustrate her point.
Another question concerned her Hispanic heritage. Since Sotomayor is the first Latina Supreme Court Justice, it was assumed that she should be an active advocate for her ethnic community. But again, she surprised the group and demurred. Sotomayor saw her role on the Court as a hard-working and well-qualified jurist, who is there to review cases to the best of her ability.
However, she has taken offense when people put her Puerto Rican background ahead of an extensive resume. Once during an interview for a position as a law firm associate, a partner asked if she had gotten into an Ivy League school because of her ethnicity.
But rather than responding angrily with the common “you have offended me’” routine, the Justice held her emotions in check. The next day in private, she confronted the person and countered rationally — referring to her impressive accomplishments, which only could have been the result of an intelligent and remarkable individual.
Sotomayor also said that there have been occasions when as a female, she felt demeaned by others. But again, in atypical fashion, she looked at some of these comments not as intentional slights, but as a lack of understanding as to how one might feel in her position.
As a result, Sotomayor does not see herself harboring resentment, but rather educating these people in a way that does not offend them as well.
As a final point, there seemed to be an expectation for her to make a woeful proclamation about the November election. But remaining professional, Sotomayor did not do so.
“We can’t afford to have a president fail,” she said. But she did encourage people to stay true to their principles.
Obviously, I was impressed with the wisdom of Associate Justice Sonja Sotomayor.
If all Americans followed her lead by accepting differences in others and the realization that there are no absolutes when it comes to political ideology, it’s doubtful we would have the emotionally divided country that we see so much in the media and on our streets today.
Steve Hansen is a Lodi writer