World and Nation

Sotomayor reflects on advice, race and public perception at UChicago talk

CHICAGO — Justice Sonia Sotomayor, speaking at a law school here Monday, said she had “taken heat” at her Supreme Court confirmation hearings two summers ago in part because she was the first Hispanic nominee.

“People have views of me and expectations of me that are based on stereotypes,” she said.

In her most candid and extensive public remarks since joining the court in 2009, Sotomayor reflected on the advice she had received from colleagues, her discomfort with becoming a celebrity and the role public opinion plays in judicial decision making.

She offered advice to lawyers who appear before the court and to students who want to serve as law clerks there. And she criticized Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., saying his approach to matters of racial justice was too simplistic.

She spoke for 90 minutes at the University of Chicago Law School, answering questions from professor David A. Strauss and from students. A recurring theme was that the public still did not know her very well.

“People mistake exuberance, passion and intensity for self-confidence,” she said.

She was asked if she had a special responsibility in cases concerning race, gender and class.

“I do think I have a special role on the court,” the justice responded, “but not in the way that you think.”

She said that she welcomed becoming a role model and noted that there had been “a tremendous uptick” in the number of Hispanic groups visiting the Supreme Court. Meeting with them, she said, is “a priority for me.”

But she added that her background did not affect her judicial work. “I don’t come to the process as a woman of color, saying that I have to come to a decision that will help a specific group of people,” she said.

On the other hand, she said she disagreed with Roberts’ approach to cases concerning racial equality. In a 2007 opinion in a decision limiting the use of race to achieve public school integration, Roberts wrote that “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”

That approach, Sotomayor said, was “too simple.”

“I don’t borrow Chief Justice Roberts’ description of what colorblindness is,” she said. “Our society is too complex to use that kind of analysis.”

That was, however, the sole suggestion of tension on the court. Much of the balance of Sotomayor’s remarks sought to correct what she called the misimpression that there is animosity among the justices.

She also said the court did not take public opinion into account in its rulings. At the same time, she said, the court is seldom out of step with the public.

“On the vast majority of cases,” she said, “I bet we’re right with them.”