Just a few questions into her time as the featured speaker of the University of Minnesota’s 2016 Stein Lecture on Monday, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor interrupted her moderator, Prof. Robert A. Stein.
“Do you mind if I start moving around a little?” Sotomayor asked. “As a child, I was a little overactive. My mother called me ají, which is jumping pepper in Spanish.”
What happened next was remarkable. Followed by a large guard with a bushy beard, Sotomayor paced around Northrop Auditorium, shaking hands with audience members while answering each question at length.
Avoiding political opinions that landed her fellow justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in hot water last week, Sotomayor instead sought to humanize those who serve on the Supreme Court. Her answers were nuanced, delivered to a full house in a calm manner that looked at both sides of the issues.
She called for unity, and for the end of a ruthless political climate brought on by the presidential race and statements of Republican candidate Donald Trump.
She hinted at this when she spoke of the male mentors who supported her early on in her career in law.
“As much as sexism and racism … have been perpetuated by people in power, we sometimes forget that in all of those systems, there have been people of goodwill,” she said.
Sotomayor, introduced by Law School Dean Garry Jenkins as “one of the most powerful and influential voices in civic life today,” is generally known for being a progressive on the court.
The third female justice and first Latina, Sotomayor has offered frank takes on decisions, many involving race and the criminal justice system. She called Brown v. Board of Education one of the most important Supreme Court cases in history.
Earlier this year, Sotomayor wrote a passionate dissent on a Fourth Amendment case regarding the admissibility of evidence found after unlawful stops by police. “It is no secret that people of color are disproportionate victims of this type of scrutiny,” she wrote, referencing the events in Ferguson, Mo., and authors including W.E.B. Du Bois and Ta-Nehisi Coates.
At Northrop, she spoke of how she wanted to use law as a way to help her community and those who had little understanding of their rights. In responding to questions from students, Sotomayor took the opportunity to decry a rising tide of xenophobia.
“We better get to know each other better. Because if we don’t figure out how to live together, we’re going to continue in the kind of warfare, regional or otherwise, that we’re involved in,” Sotomayor responded, to applause. “It really behooves us to figure out another way to do things.”
When another student asked how immigrants build communities in the United States, Sotomayor called the question “nonsensical.”
“Except for the Native Americans in the room, and there may be a handful of them, nobody is native to the United States,” she said, calling for continued dialogue about constitutional rights between citizens and noncitizens. As Sotomayor continued to respond to the question, she was standing beside Justice Anne K. McKeig, appointed to the state Supreme Court as its first American Indian jurist.
Yet her responses never were as revealing as those Ginsburg made in an interview last week with Katie Couric for Yahoo News, both to the relief and disappointment of the audience members.
Ginsburg made waves last week when she criticized Colin Kaepernick, quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, and other athletes who kneel in protest during the national anthem. “I think it’s really dumb of them,” she told Couric. She has since apologized for the statements.
Audience member April Spas, of Minneapolis, said Sotomayor was wise to avoid making politically charged statements.
“I think as a Supreme Court justice, you have to be very conscious of the idea that you’re really not a politician,” Spas said. “I think part of her mission here is to actually make the Supreme Court seem more accessible and not as political as some people think it is.”
The Stein Lecture is an annual address sponsored by the University of Minnesota Law School and Stein, who is a former dean of the law school and former chief operating officer of the American Bar Association. Also present at the lecture Monday were Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar and former Vice President Walter Mondale.
Other justices have delivered the Stein Lecture in past years. The late Justice Antonin Scalia gave it last October, only months before his death. Ginsburg gave the lecture in 2014.
When asked about how the court reacted to the sudden death of Scalia, an outspoken conservative justice, Sotomayor said it was “like losing a member of my family.”
“We disagreed on so many things, but we really, deeply were friends with each other,” she said from the back of the room. “We sparred and we laughed together, but so does everybody on the court.”
Now with only eight members in the Supreme Court, its future makeup is dependent on the outcome of this year’s presidential election.
President Obama in March nominated Judge Merrick Garland to the bench, a move still awaiting consideration by the Republican-led Senate. Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have spoken about Garland’s nomination, though it is unknown who else they would nominate.
Sotomayor offered no comment on that uncertain future.