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Justice Sotomayor: Equal justice demands an equal process

Inscribed over the main entrance to the Supreme Court building are the words “Equal Justice Under Law.” And just what does that mean to justices as they enter the nation’s highest court of law daily to render critical decisions?

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor (left), ABA President Reginald M. Turner (upper right) and FTC attorney Jaime Taronji (lower right).

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor (left), ABA President Reginald M. Turner (upper right) and FTC attorney Jaime Taronji (lower right).

“My answer is very simple: We have to give everyone a fair process, give people the ability to be fully heard and ensure that their arguments are considered under the law for the decisions that have affected them,” said Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor during an hourlong virtual chat with lawyers, judges and law students on Sept. 29.

The program was the centerpiece of the ABA's four-day “Equity Summit: Advancing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the Legal Profession and Beyond,” sponsored by the Diversity and Inclusion Center and Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Council. ABA President Reginald M. Turner presented welcome remarks.

Sotomayor in further explaining equal justice under the law said people must understand that there is a difference between moral justice and legal justice.

“Moral justice is a sense of who’s more deserving of an outcome? Legal justice never asks that question. It asks who is deserving under the law?” she said. “The two are often not in sync and that is why people get so disappointed often by court rulings, because they feel sympathy toward one party that they don’t have toward another.”

Sotomayor said separating moral justice from equal justice is an emotional conflict that not only affects ordinary citizens but also judges, lawyers and anyone involved in the legal system.

“We can’t control the law. The law is made elsewhere. It is enforced by other people. We interpret the disputes under the law and the outcomes may not be what we want,” she said. “We can control the process. If you look at my jurisprudence, you will likely see that where I write the most is when the system has not given the people a fair opportunity to be heard.”

Following a short Q&A with moderator Jaime Taronji, an attorney at the Federal Trade Commission, Sotomayor took questions from the online audience on advice to first-year law students, how to encourage more women to seek judgeships, how she has handled discrimination in her life, and the most helpful piece of advice from her mom.

That advice?

“She gave me life advice that I have applied as a lawyer and as a judge,’’ Sotomayor said. “It was look for the good in every person you have contact with. I have taken that advice to the work that I do.”

Sotomayor says: More from the justice’s ABA event

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor took several questions from ABA Equity Summit participants, revealing additional noteworthy gems.

On the advancement of women judges

Educate women behind us, Sotomayor said, telling the audience about the value of paying it forward. “So many of us feel insecure about applying for positions that we never imagined were within our reach,” she said. “Start talking to them about these opportunities as early as possible because there is a path to being a judge … if you aren’t aware of what that path is, you never know whether to put yourself in the race or not.”

On effective influence when in the minority

“The best way to influence the majority is to try to narrow their holdings,” Sotomayor said of advice on the topic from her fellow justice, Elena Kagan. Keeping the impact of the holding as narrow as possible, “there is an avenue later to either change the direction of a bad ruling or to make its focus to broaden it at some point in the future,” she further explained, noting that she sometimes will privately circulate her dissents in the hope that they will change minds.

On her friendship with Justice Clarence Thomas

Sotomayor said there are few men who have a “kinder heart” than Thomas. When someone in her family died, he sent flowers. And when she has been sick, he checked in on her.

“We are both committed friends and committed family members," she further said. “And so, in seeing that good in him, there is no reason for me to take our personal disputes and translate it into our personal interactions. We work together. We have to work together for the rest of our time on the court.” [ABA Journal]

On Texas abortion law S.B. 8

“There’s going to be a lot of disappointments in the law, a huge amount,” Sotomayor said of the measure that she called “flagrantly unconstitutional” in her dissent.  “I can't change Texas’ law, but you can. You can and everyone else who may or may not like it can go out there and be lobbying forces in changing laws that you don't like.” [Washington PostCNN]

On how fellow Hispanics in the law can continue to blaze trails for others

“You have to take your community with you,” Sotomayor said. Stay connected and share your experience. “By talking to them about your experiences, and by letting them see it, by letting them understand how insecure you might feel in this new world, by your sharing on insights about what you are experiencing — they can walk with you. Instead of being left behind.”

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