The art of Kevin Blythe Sampson

THE ART OF
KEVIN BLYTHE SAMPSON

7/2/11

Sonia Sotomayor: The Public Face Of The Supreme Court Liberals | The New Republic

Sonia Sotomayor: The Public Face Of The Supreme Court Liberals | The New Republic

Sonia Sotomayor: How She Became the Public Face of the Supreme Court’s Liberal Wing

Monday was the last day of this year’s Supreme Court term—one widely seen as notable not for what was decided but, rather, for coming before what could be a momentous 2011-2012 term, when decisions on gay marriage and health care, to mention just two issues, could be handed down. Years from now, however, we might be talking about this term as significant for another reason: It was when Sonia Sotomayor became the most well-known and effective member of the Court’s liberal wing.

When Sotomayor was nominated to the Supreme Court in 2009, many liberals were unhappy. This unease was only magnified by her confirmation hearings. The Washington Post said that there was “little for liberals” in the hearings, and former University of Chicago Law School Dean Geoffrey Stone argued that they “did serious damage to the cause of progressive thought in constitutional law.”

Now, almost two years later, while the returns are preliminary, there are reasons for liberals to be optimistic. In her first 18 months on the Court, Sotomayor has proven to be what the Los Angeles Times has called a “reliable liberal vote.” Meanwhile, The New York Times has noted that Sotomayor has been “alert to the humanity of the people whose cases make their way to the Supreme Court. Slate said one her opinions about Miranda warnings reflected that “empathy for the vulnerable isn’t merely a choice but a necessity.”

But what is most consequential about Sotomayor’s time on the Court is how what she has done on the bench combines with what she has done away from it. Sotomayor has become the public face of the Court’s liberal wing because she seems to be what so few justices are: a real person, with the jurisprudence to match.


Justices decide cases and resolve important legal questions, but they also serve as voices for their legal perspectives—using not just their questions on the bench and their written opinions but also their public appearances to communicate their views on the law. Justice Antonin Scalia has done this well over the years, effectively mixing amusement and substance to inspire and mobilize political and social movements, as well as appeal to members of the general public. An effective voice like that of Scalia’s can also convince and motivate current and future lawyers. (The mere mention of Scalia’s name in my constitutional law classes always generates enormous and outsized excitement in my students.)

The liberal wing of the Court has needed an appealing voice for some time. Justice Stephen Breyer has been the leading spokesperson for liberal constitutionalism of late; he has written two important books articulating his jurisprudence and has appeared in the popular media and in debates with Scalia defending his theories. But Breyer has tended to engage in more academic and technical discussions. His most noted public appearances are often at law schools, universities, or think tanks.

As for the other recent liberal justices: With a few exceptions, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and John Paul Stevens (who is now retired) have tended to communicate with the public in technical styles similar to Breyer’s, while Justice David Souter (also retired) rarely made public appearances during his tenure on the Court. The result has been that, while constitutional liberalism might be presented as intellectually compelling, its broad appeal is somewhat limited.

It is into this void that Sotomayor has stepped. (It’s too soon to know if Justice Elena Kagan might play a similar role). A recent poll indicated that Sotomayor has already become the most well-known member of the Court’s liberal wing. But it is what she is doing with this public awareness of her life and her role on the Court that matters most.

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