U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor speaks at the University of Delaware last September.
Photo by Patrick Semansky/AP

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor: ‘We’re going backwards’

Updated

Speaking at an annual event for the liberal American Constitution Society Thursday evening, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor shared what it was like to grow up in public housing in the Bronx, the importance of diversity on the bench, and concerns that income inequality could lead to fewer poor children having the opportunities she had. 

“We’re going backwards, with the rising cost of education,” Sotomayor said to Theodore Shaw, a longtime friend and former head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. “There’s a lot more kids, and I’m not talking just about kids of our background, but kids across the spectrum who no longer have a hope of attending the schools we did.”

“As the wealth difference grows, we’re going to, I suspect have many of the problems other countries have, the unrest other countries have,” Sotomayor said.

Sotomayor, who was appointed to the high court by President Barack Obama in 2010, has spoken openly about her childhood poverty in the Bronx and the way it has shaped her career and her understanding of the law. Liberals have touted her background as an American success story and an asset to the court, conservatives have caricatured her as an affirmative action pick whose identity politics impair her legal judgements. Particularly controversial was Sotomayor’s scorching dissent in a recent affirmative action case, in which she wrote that her conservative colleagues were “out of touch with reality” of racism in America. 

Sotomayor said someone had recently asked her about that dissent, and the questioner wondered why Sotomayor couldn’t “separate” herself from her life experiences. 

“It’s important to have people with different life experiences…especially on a court like the Supreme Court.”
Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor

“I said to the person questioning me, it’s easy when precedent supports you,” Sotomayor said. “I wasn’t living my life experiences, I was doing what I understood was the law.”

The high court is not the only place where Sotomayor has come in conflict with others over whether the United States has overcome past inequalities. She discussed a fight she had with the editor of her memoir, “My Beloved World”, over whether or not to speak in the present tense about poor children receiving inferior educations.

“We fought and fought because he insisted that the world I was describing didn’t exist today,” Sotomayor said. “It’s not back then it’s now. We live in places where people don’t, because they haven’t experienced it, believe it exists.”

The Supreme Court has yet to issue opinions on many of its biggest cases this term, and Sotomayor offered few hints about how the high court might rule. She did use an example of a recent exchange from oral argument in a case involving whether or not police can search the cell phones of arrestees without a warrant to explain the importance of personal experience in shaping legal judgments. 
 
“One of my colleagues asked, ‘who owns two cell phones, why would anybody?’ In a room full of government lawyers, each one of them has two cell phones,” Sotomayor said to knowing laughter from the audience. “My point is that issue was remedied very quickly okay, that misimpression was.”
 
The colleague was Chief Justice John Roberts, who along with Justice Antonin Scalia, seemed skeptical during oral arguments in Wurie v. United States that anyone but a drug dealer would need two cell phones. 

“That’s why it’s important to have people with different life experiences,” Sotomayor said. ”Especially on a court like the Supreme Court, because we have to correct each other from misimpressions.”

Sonia Sotomayor and Supreme Court

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor: 'We're going backwards'

Updated