PRINCETON, N.J.—Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor said on Friday the judicial confirmation process “needs to be reformed,” but said she is convinced that nothing will ever satisfy senators or the public, who want judicial nominees to provide something they can’t give.
“They only want one thing from a nominee: that is a direct answer on the case that’s important to them” Sotomayor, the third woman to serve on the Supreme Court, told an audience at Princeton University.
In her 2009 confirmation, Sotomayor said she found the senators "open and candid" in her private, one-on-one meetings with them. In the public confirmation hearings, not so much. "They were not interested in my answers," she said. "The answers weren't important to them. Their questions were important.”
Rather than trying to pin them down on specific cases, senators should focus on a judicial nominee's broader "approach to cases," Sotomayor said. She suggested having a panel of legal experts evaluate potential judges written records. But Sotomayor also recommended including "an Oprah Winfrey moment" in the confirmation process "where senators ask about you as a person." That would provide insights into a nominee's character and values, she suggested.
In an hour-long conversation with Princeton President Shirley Tilghman, a warm, unostentatious Sotomayor captivated an audience of 1,400 women graduates returning to the once all-male university. A member of the third Princeton class to admit women, she spoke emotionally about her experience moving from the tenements of the south Bronx to the marble precincts of the Supreme Court.
A year and a half after her confirmation, it still feels "dream-like,” she said. “Don’t pinch me. I don’t want to wake up.”
She provided colorful insights into the indignities of the nomination process. The weekend before President Obama nominated her to the high court, she said she was inundated with requests from the White House for more information, always prefaced by the caveat that her nomination was not a done deal.
At one point, Sotomayor said, she was asked to “write an acceptance speech, just in case.” After she put her mother and brother on a plane to Washington, she said she was told that if the president didn’t pick her, “we’ll send them back.” When her brother decided he should buy suits for her twin nephews in case they had to accompany her to the White House, the justice said she called him back to say “don’t take the price tags off.”
When she finally got the call from the president, her heart started pounding so hard "I thought it would pound out of my chest," she said. "I just couldn't believe it would be true."
Since coming to the court, she said she has been pleasantly surprised by the warm, personal relationships among justices who disagree “passionately” on paper over the law. Though ideologically often opposite, she said she and Justice Antonin Scalia are most alike temperamentally: “Loud, boisterous, in-your-face.”
Sotomayor enjoyed a reception that was far from what she gets in the solemn confines of the court. As she walked into the university gym where the event was held, there were shrieks and cheers and cries of “Sonia!” from the student section.
The high court's first Latina justice, Sotomayor talked about facing down “subtle” discrimination throughout her career, and said she appreciates her importance as a role model. But she misses her ability to walk anonymously down the streets of a city, and spontaneous chats with strangers. When she finds herself “pining for those moments of aloneness that I had publicly,” Sotomayor said she reminds herself to be grateful for the attention and admiration she gets from strangers who stop her everywhere she goes. “It’s a gift they’re giving me.”
(Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Sotomayor's place in the history of women on the Supreme Court. She is the third female justice)