CHICAGO -- Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor was so chagrined at what she deemed the gratuitous minutiae and sexist questioning during her confirmation process that she told a friend, "I think they already know the color of my underwear," she revealed Monday.
In a candid, self-confident but also humble appearance, Sotomayor offered small peeks into the court's decision-making processes, even once owning up to being occasionally confused by colleagues during the court's private deliberations.
After pre-approved questions from two Northwestern University School of Law professors, she was most revealing during questioning from law students, especially when one woman suggested that the questioning Sotomayor and the most recent other appointee, Elena Kagan, faced was laden with male-driven assumptions.
"You know, and I don't mean to be graphic, but one day after I'd been questioned endlessly, for weeks at a time, I was so frustrated by the minutiae of what I was being asked about and said to a friend, 'I think they already know the color of my underwear,'" the justice said.
"There were private questions I was offended by. I was convinced they were not asking those questions of the male applicants," Sotomayor said, alluding to questions about her dating habits. It was unclear if she was referring to private sessions, prior to her formal nomination hearing, with individual senators.
Continuing the conversational thread about dating questions posed to her, she declared, "I wondered if they ever asked those questions of the male candidates. But the society has a double standard."
Sotomayor,who is single, then cited her "many single male colleagues who are judges who date often, bring dates to court affairs and nobody ever talks about them. I knew if I did the same thing, my morals would be questioned. So I'm very careful about whom I date and how public it is." It was unclear but presumably she was harkening to her experiences as a district court, appellate court and, now, Supreme Court judge.
"I don't like people talking about my private life," she said, suggesting that there is a double standard in how single women and men are treated and portrayed. "There are expectations of how men and women should behave." She added, "I'm probably a bit more aggressive than many like in a woman."
In an hour-long public session, capping a day spent in other venues with the faculty and students, she dispensed what appeared to be deemed very solid advice on a variety of subjects, including how a student might best seek a job as a judge's clerk and how one later might best come to the attention of those with influence in selecting state and federal judges.
She later elicited laughter from the hundreds in a packed auditorium in discussing how challenging it's been to be a new Supreme Court judge and not always fully comprehending colleagues' back-and-forths in their so-called conferences about pending cases.
Initially, there were instances when she'd think something was coming out of "left field" when, in fact, it was distinctly relevant to the discussion at hand. The problem was that they were dialogues whose genesis predated her arrival in 2009.
"I will hear somebody say, 'Like I told you guys in blank case....' and I'm lost," she said.
But the laughs came when she revealed how another colleague would take her aside and counsel, "Sonia, this is something having to do with their [two justices'] continuing disagreement on such and such. Sonia, it's not pertinent here."
If walking into such unceasing dialogues has been her greatest challenge, the greatest surprise, even after many years as a judge, "has been how burdened I have felt in the decision-making process because I am part of the final court. I find that the weight of this
is greater than I anticipated." At lower levels, she always knew that one could make a mistake and perhaps the next court would correct it. No more.
As Robert Bennett, a former dean of the law school, correctly put it later, "This is a woman who speaks her mind, is very open and still gives the impression that she's learning on the job and not ashamed of that."
She was also willing to admit that oral arguments before the court -- even after she and colleagues have done substantial homework on an individual case -- are enormously influential in how she winds up in voting. Other colleagues, such as Justice Antonin Scalia, may often depict matters, such as constitutional questions, as rather straightforward, given their pre-existing interpretation of the constitution.
Sotomayor gave the sense that she's more intellectually open and fluid. "I find that very refreshing," said Bennett, who had introduced the justice to the assembled.
James Warren, a longtime reporter and editor with the Chicago Tribune, now writes columns for the Chicago News Cooperative and The New York Times. He contributed this story to the Atlantic.