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By Ariane of Vogue, CNN Supreme Court Reporter
As the Supreme Court prepares for the end of the most tumultuous term in decades and justices race to issue opinions on hotly contested issues, Justice Sonia Sotomayor appeared before a liberal audience in Washington on Thursday and discussed of his relationship with his ideological opposite: Justice Clarence Thomas.
“I probably disagreed with him more than any other judge,” Sotomayor said of the conservative justice. But, she said, the two maintain a friendship, in part because he is a “man who cares deeply about the court as an institution — the people who work here.”
“He has a very different view than mine on how to help people…and their responsibilities to help themselves,” Sotomayor said at an event hosted by the American Constitution Society. “I have often told people that Judge Thomas believes that every person can pull themselves up by their bootstraps. I believe that some people cannot access their bootstraps without help – they need someone to help them lift the foot so that they can reach.”
But she added that the two share a “common understanding of people and kindness”.
“That’s why I can be friends with him and continue our daily battle over our differences of opinion in the cases,” she said. “You really can’t begin to understand an opponent unless you don’t see their views as motivated in bad faith.”
Sotomayor’s comments came as the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol announced that it plans to invite Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, Thomas’ wife, for an interview. in order to better understand his role in the effort to overturn the 2020 election results. Judge Thomas himself has come under fire for failing to recuse himself from cases related to former President Donald Trump and the attack.
Sotomayor did not mention this controversy, nor did she address the leak this spring of a draft opinion quashing Roe v. Wade or protests that erupted outside the courthouse as well as at the homes of some judges after the leak.
She also dodged explicit references to the remaining cases on issues such as abortion, gun rights, immigration, religious freedom and the environment that will likely emerge over the next two weeks.
But she spoke to a young, progressive lawyer who asked her – in general terms – to give up hope during a difficult time in the country.
“There are days when I get discouraged, there are times when I’m deeply, deeply disappointed,” admitted Sotomayor. But she said she licked her wounds, “sometimes I cry” and “then I say, ‘OK, let’s fight.’
Sotomayor took questions from the audience and from his former clerk, Tiffany Wright, who is now an associate attorney in the White House Office of Legal Counsel.
Roe and other controversies
If the court’s final opinion in this case does indeed reverse the landmark ruling legalizing abortion nationwide before it was viable, Sotomayor is unlikely to remain silent. Already, during the closing arguments, she suggested that the only reason the court was reviewing Roe now, after about 50 years, was that his composition had recently changed.
“Will this institution survive the stench its own is creating in the public perception that the Constitution and its reading are nothing but political acts?” she asked.
There have been rows this term where Sotomayor partnered with one of her conservative colleagues. For example, she joined a dissent written by fellow Conservative and benchmate Judge Neil Gorsuch in March when the majority agreed to shield the testimony of two former government contractors from a terrorism suspect.
But in the cases that get the most public attention, she’s likely to make her position known. Evidence of tension between some of the judges seeped into opinions and even speeches.
Thomas, for example, gave an unusual speech last month where he appeared to criticize Chief Justice John Roberts. Recalling the atmosphere at Court before Roberts arrived, Thomas said: “We actually trusted each other. We may have been a dysfunctional family, but we were a family and we loved it,” a- he declared.
At the start of the mandate last fall, Sotomayor foreshadowed sharp divisions.
“There’s going to be a lot of disappointment in the law, a lot,” she told a group of law students at an event hosted by the American Bar Association. “Look at me, look at my dissents,” she said.
When the court allowed Texas’ six-week abortion ban to go into effect, her anger was palpable. “The court,” she said, “not only betrays the citizens of Texas, but also our constitutional system of government.”
In January, when the court again ruled against abortion providers in the state, Sotomayor went even further.
“This case is a disaster for the rule of law and a grave prejudice to women in Texas, who have the right to control their own bodies,” she wrote in a scathing dissent joined by Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan. “I will not remain silent as a state continues to nullify this constitutional guarantee.”
And earlier this month, in a dispute that has curtailed individuals’ ability to sue law enforcement officers who violate their constitutional rights, dissenting Sotomayor once again referenced the speed at which the court overturned precedent and set new standards, referring to it as a “restless and newly constituted Court”.
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