Sonia Sotomayor Reassures Liberals As Conservative Decisions Loom

When asked about the collapse in trust in the court, the justice said she still believes "the arc of history bends toward justice."

Justice Sonia Sotomayor didn’t tell a gathering of liberal lawyers Thursday what will happen in the big upcoming abortion decision, nor did she give any hint of when it would drop. She didn’t talk about the internal drama roiling the court or how she’s getting along with her colleagues. These topics were off-limits for her speech at the American Constitution Society convention.

But she did perhaps offer some reassurance to the crowd — ahead of what is expected to be a devastating series of decisions for progressives coming in June — that ultimately, “the arc of history bends toward justice.”

In response to a question about rapidly declining public trust in the Supreme Court, Sotomayor said that institutions like the court are made up of human beings and that it is human nature to “make mistakes.”

One “mistake” she raised was the 1857 decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford where the court found that Black people “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect,” therefore denying them the rights and privileges of citizenship throughout the entire United States.

The Dred Scott decision is widely agreed to be among the worst decisions issued by the Supreme Court in its history, both for its racism, inaccurate history and poor legal reasoning. But, as Sotomayor noted, the decision was ultimately overturned by the adoption of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments. And even though the racist logic continued in the court’s Plessy v. Ferguson decision upholding racial segregation, that, too, was overturned in the Brown v. Board of Education decision.

“When we, as institutions, have made mistakes,” Sotomayor said. “Other parts of the branches [of government]” and “the people have worked to make change.”

“Dred Scott lost his 11-year battle for freedom,” she said. And yet, with the decision in Brown, “He won the war.”

“That’s why I think we have to have continuing faith in our court system, in our system of government,” she added, noting that that the system allows for constitutional amendments and legislation to address outcomes like Dred Scott.

That is why “I truly believe in the magical words, ‘the arc of the universe bends towards justice,’” she said.

Sotomayor’s comments come as the Supreme Court’s six-vote conservative supermajority is expected to overturn the 1973 precedent in Roe v. Wade enshrining abortion rights when it rules in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization case in the coming weeks.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor told a gathering of liberal lawyers that she still believes "the arc of history bends toward justice."
Justice Sonia Sotomayor told a gathering of liberal lawyers that she still believes "the arc of history bends toward justice."
AP Photo/Jeff Roberson

In May, Politico released a leaked draft opinion showing that five conservative justices had already aligned themselves to overturn Roe.

Since then, the court has been described as “in turmoil,” “imploding” and seething “with resentment.” Protesters appeared outside of the homes of the conservative justices who appear ready to overturn Roe. One man, outraged over Roe’s imminent demise, called the police on himself as he planned to assassinate Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

Chief Justice John Roberts ordered the marshal of the Supreme Court to launch an unprecedented leak investigation. Investigators have asked clerks to turn over their phones, and clerks, in turn, have hired lawyers.

While Sotomayor made no comment on the turmoil within or surrounding the court, Justice Clarence Thomas was more forthright in a talk hosted by a conservative think tank in May.

In pointed public comments, Thomas, now the longest-serving justice on the court, said he no longer trusted his fellow justices.

“When you lose that trust, especially in the institution that I’m in, it changes the institution fundamentally,” Thomas said at a May 14 event hosted by the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “You begin to look over your shoulder. It’s, like, kind of an infidelity that you can explain it, but you can’t undo it.”

Thomas even said that the court has not been the same since former Chief Justice William Rehnquist died in 2005 and was replaced by current Chief Justice John Roberts. Roberts, notably, was the lone conservative justice not to join the draft opinion that leaked.

No one has yet taken responsibility for leaking the opinion. There have been a handful of theories about whether the leak came from progressives or conservatives.

Sotomayor’s invocation of Dred Scott can only be seen as a call for the next generation of liberal lawyers to keep the faith as they see the progressive advances of the 20th century rolled back by the current court’s conservative supermajority.

At the end of her remarks, as she walked around the conference room shaking hands with attendees, the justice explained how she deals with setbacks and losses.

“There are days where I get discouraged,” she admitted. “There are moments where I am deeply, deeply disappointed. And, yes, there have been moments where I have stopped and said, ‘Is this worth it anymore?’”

“And every time I do that, I lick my wounds for a while,” she added. “Sometimes I cry. And then I say, ‘OK, let’s fight.’”

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