WASHINGTON – Two of the Supreme Court justices who disagree most often on the outcomes of cases say they both still try hard to persuade each other, and sometimes succeed. Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Justice Amy Coney Barrett made the comments in a pretaped conversation made public for the first time Thursday evening.
Barrett, a conservative, and Sotomayor, a liberal, were on opposite sides of a decision last month in which the court stripped away women’s constitutional protections for abortion. They also disagreed on decisions where the court expanded gun rights and lowered barriers to religion in public life. But, noted Barrett at one point: “We like each other. We do.”
“I think one of the wonders of being on the Supreme Court is my knowing that every single one of my colleagues is equally passionate about the Constitution, our system of government and getting it right as I am. We may disagree on how to get there, and we often do, but that doesn't mean that I look at them and say, ‘You’re bad people.' I accept that it is a difference of opinion," Sotomayor said. “I'm going to work very hard to try to convince them to look at it my way, and to correct their wrong.”
“Ditto,” Barrett said, and both laughed.
As for persuading each other, Barrett said: “I just want the audience to know sometimes we do. Justice Sotomayor has persuaded me. We do try to work together behind the scenes and we don’t go in and have our minds made up and locked in. We work together a lot and we talk and, you know, we do change our minds.”
The event is the first time the justices have made a joint appearance. Barrett, an appointee of President Donald Trump, joined the court in 2020. Sotomayor, an appointee of President Barack Obama, has been on the court since 2009. Sotomayor is the court's first Hispanic justice. They are the court's third and fifth female justices.
The two also talked about ways the court, currently divided 6-3 between conservatives and liberals, works to foster collegiality. They celebrate birthdays with a toast and round of "Happy Birthday," shake every other justice's hand when they get together and eat lunch together, where a rule is that they can't talk about work. Sotomayor noted she's been absent from those lunches because of concerns about the coronavirus.
Sotomayor and Barrett answered questions from Yale law professor Akhil Reed Amar for about an hour as part of an education summit hosted by The Ronald Reagan Institute Center for Civics, Education, and Opportunity. The two didn't talk specifically about any case and most of the conversation focused on education and civic engagement, with the justices answering questions from how they try to model citizenship to whether they've ever served on a jury. The answer to that question was no, for both.
Sotomayor, a former trial judge, talked about the importance of jury service, however, calling it “one of the few responsibilities we are asked to undertake as citizens.” “I get a lot of people and friends call me and say: ‘I just got a jury notice. Can you get me of it?’ And my answer is no I can’t, but I don’t want to.”
In speaking about civic participation, Barrett noted that her parents' garage was a polling place when she was young. She also said one of her seven children turned 18 in the fall and was unsure about voting, wondering if she'd have time to learn all that she needed to, among other things. Barrett said one of her younger siblings convinced her she needed to.
“You have the right to vote now. You better go vote or I'll be really mad at you,” Barrett recounted her 11-year-old daughter Juliet saying. “She couldn't disappoint her sister, so she voted.”
Returning to talk about the court at the end of the conversation, Sotomayor said she challenges audiences to take one Supreme Court decision they disagree or agree with and read it from beginning to end. “There are two sides to every presentation. And it is important that before you choose a side ... that you’ve actually sat down and thought about it completely,” she said.
“Wholeheartedly agree,” Barrett said.