By ADAM LIPTAK MAY 6, 2014
“I am a lawyer’s judge,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor said last year. “I write very technically.”
That was true at the time. But something has changed in the current Supreme Court term. In opinions concerning human rights abuses, the death penalty and, most notably, affirmative action, Justice Sotomayor has found her voice.
“She’s setting a public agenda,” said Cristina Rodriguez, a law professor at Yale. “She’s looking for her moments. And her willingness to talk about how biography informs judgments challenges a lot of people’s notions about what the law is supposed to do.”
Cristina Rodriguez, Yale
Justice Sotomayor, 59, is approaching her fifth anniversary on the Supreme Court, where she has emerged as an increasingly confident figure. In the last term, she asked more questions than any other justice. In the current one, she has staked out positions that have led to testy exchanges with colleagues across the ideological spectrum.
She is a kind of folk hero to the adoring crowds who attend her public appearances by the thousands. Her memoir, which told the story of her ascent from a housing project in the Bronx, was a best seller. Some call her “the people’s justice.”
Others attacked her in unusually personal terms after she became the first beneficiary of affirmative action to defend the practice from the Supreme Court bench, summarizing in emphatic and impassioned tones her 58-page dissent from a ruling upholding Michigan’s ban on using race in admissions decisions at the state’s public universities.
Let's be clear about the hilariously unprincipled appeals court ruling that the Supremes, including even the Democrat Stephen Breyer, overturned. Ward Connerly and Jennifer Gratz organized a 2006 initiative campaign to ban racial preferences by the state of Michigan that triumphed over the uniform opposition of Establishment groups in the state with 58% of the vote, the black radical group with the intentionally intimidatory name By Any Means Necessary (i.e., including violence). The appeals court ruled on a party line 8-7 vote just after Obama's re-election that this successful initiative unfairly burdened minorities in the political process, even though they were completely at liberty to change the state constitution back in the same way Ward had changed it: by getting a majority of voters to vote for an initiative of their own.
“Race matters,” she wrote, “because of the slights, the snickers, the silent judgments that reinforce that most crippling of thoughts: ‘I do not belong here.’ ”
... “I would hope,” she said, “that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experience would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.” At her 2009 confirmation hearings, Justice Sotomayor disavowed the remark, saying it was a “rhetorical flourish that fell flat.”
Last month’s dissent, in Schuette v. BAMN, was a mix of legal analysis, historical overview and policy arguments. ... But what stood out was a fairly brief reflection about what it was like to grow up Puerto Rican in New York City.
“Race matters to a young woman’s sense of self when she states her hometown, and then is pressed, ‘No, where are you really from?’ regardless of how many generations her family has been in the country,” she wrote. “Race matters to a young person addressed by a stranger in a foreign language, which he does not understand because only English was spoken at home.” ...
In her Supreme Court opinions, Justice Sotomayor has introduced a new vocabulary. She was the first to use the term “undocumented immigrant.”
In her recent dissent, she proposed another change. “Although the term ‘affirmative action’ is commonly used to describe colleges’ and universities’ use of race in crafting admissions policies,” she wrote, “I instead use the term ‘race-sensitive admissions policies.’ ”