Sotomayor on Converting Colleagues & Dashing Dreams


“Listen before you talk.” That was the advice U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor gave a high school student wanting to know the best way to persuade adversaries in today’s divisive political climate.

You have to understand what’s motivating people before you can change their minds, Sotomayor said.

As an example she used immigration, which has been front and center in the national dialogue following President Donald Trump’s cancellation of protections for so-called Dreamers and the administration’s temporary ban on immigrants from certain Muslim-majority countries. The justices themselves are scheduled to hear oral arguments on the travel ban on Oct. 10.

People feel strongly about immigration because many feel “at risk,” Sotomayor said. The country won’t be able to come to resolve its immigration issues until those feelings are addressed, she said.

The justices themselves don’t always—take time to understand others before responding, Sotomayor acknowledged. Justices aren’t always a “fountain of diplomacy,” she said.

Still, the justices are able to maintain civility most of the time, Sotomayor said. That’s in part because they start from the premise that all of them are good people who are passionate about the Constitution and dedicated to the country, Sotomayor said. “We are equally in love with the principles, even if we disagree” on how best to implement them, she said.

Sotomayor spoke Sept. 21 at an intimate event centering on the importance of civic education. Since 2015, she’s been on the board of iCivics, an organization founded by retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor to foster greater understanding of American government.

The discussion also touched on cameras in the courtroom (Sotomayor thinks it’s a bad idea) and the justice’s family in Puerto Rico dealing with the aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and Maria. She asked the audience for prayers, as she hadn’t yet heard from nearly half of her family members living on the island.

It wasn’t all serious, though. The justice recalled her appearances on Sesame Street in which she gave Abby Cadabby career advice and, on another appearance, successfully mediated a dispute between Baby Bear and Goldilocks.

Both appearances were the subject of great criticism, she said. In the first, mothers were livid that she dashed the dreams of young girls to be princesses. That’s not a real career she told Abby Cadabby. In her second appearance, she got flak for encouraging the “parties” to resolve the “case” via a compromise. That’s not what judges are supposed to do, lawyers told her.

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