WASHINGTON -- Every oral argument at the U.S. Supreme Court is unscripted, but rarely is the great marble courtroom the place to get real about one's personal life.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor got a little real this week.
While hearing a case dealing with the problem of racism in jury selection, the associate justice offered a brief nugget about her family -- and yet another window into why she's often seen as "the people's justice."
"I have cousins who I know have been arrested," she said Monday, "but I have no idea where they're in jail."
She followed up with, "I hardly..." Her voice trailed off. "I don't know them."
That's it. Nothing else. No follow-up or more details about who the cousins are, what they did to get involved in the criminal justice system, or whether Sotomayor even has a relationship with their families.
Lyle Denniston, a veteran reporter who has covered the Supreme Court since the late 1950s, told The Huffington Post that he doesn't think he has "ever heard any such admission from the bench."
Reflecting on Monday's hearing, Slate's Dahlia Lithwick singled out Sotomayor's remark and said, "That doesn't happen every day."
To Mother Jones' Stephanie Mencimer, it underscored "the importance of her role as the first Latina justice on the court, an institution dominated by white men from privileged backgrounds."
We do know from Sotomayor's 2013 memoir, My Beloved World, that she grew up in the Bronx alongside her cousin Nelson, "almost as twins, inseparable and, in our own eyes, virtually identical." He succumbed to drug addiction and died of AIDS before reaching age 30.
In the context of the hearing, Sotomayor seemed to have been empathizing with Marilyn Garrett, a black woman who was struck from the jury that sat in the murder trial of Timothy Foster, the death-row inmate at the center of Monday's case. Among other reasons, prosecutors had tried to explain away her exclusion from the jury by noting she had a cousin who had been arrested.
Sotomayor has had similar candid moments when the court has confronted problems in the criminal justice system.
In a hearing earlier this year dealing with the proper length of traffic stops under the Constitution, she turned to Chief Justice John Roberts to tell him how humiliating these police encounters can be.
"Chief, I've been stopped," she said, "[and] keeping me past giving me the ticket is annoying as heck -- whether it's five minutes, 10 minutes, [or] 45."
When the Supreme Court faced the issue of civilian shootings by the police -- the first time it did so since Michael Brown's death in Ferguson, Missouri -- Sotomayor again stood out when she worried in open court about cops who "resort to violence automatically" without first looking for ways to minimize risks.
In a recent decision that blessed police officers' ability to make reasonable "mistakes of law," Sotomayor was the lone dissenter, warning that the ruling could be read as "further eroding the ... protection of civil liberties in a context where that protection has already been worn down" -- an apparent nod to the current national conversation around policing.
And in a rebuke to a Texas prosecutor who made racist remarks during the drug trial of a black defendant, the justice wrote an admonishment that might as well have been addressed to every prosecutor in the country.
"The Constitution prohibits racially biased prosecutorial arguments," Sotomayor said, later adding that the prosecutor's comments "tapped a deep and sorry vein of racial prejudice that has run through the history of criminal justice in our nation."
She concluded, "I hope never to see a case like this again."
Pondering Sotomayor's style of communicating, George Washington University law professor David Fontana has argued that she has a way of expressing "her liberal perspective on the Constitution to regular members of the public, in addition to legal and academic elites."
In that sense, maybe Monday's comment wasn't just an off-the-cuff admission by Sotomayor, but part of her ongoing discourse with the public, the legal world, and anyone who cares about how the law and real life intersect.
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