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Sotomayor, Barrett discuss their lives in Supreme Court’s spotlight

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor appears for a question-and-answer session at Washington University in St. Louis on April 5. (Jeff Roberson/AP)
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As the Senate moved closer to confirming the Supreme Court’s first Black female justice, the court’s first Latina told a university audience that the spotlight at times is harsh.

“Sometimes people of color, they expect more of us,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor told a packed field house of students at Washington University in St. Louis on Tuesday afternoon. “We’re not given a lot of slack. The mistakes we make are sometimes highlighted a lot more than others. Okay?”

But she added, “It doesn’t give us an excuse not to put our heart into working as hard as we can to achieve what we want.”

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Sotomayor, 67, was not asked about Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, President Biden’s choice to replace retiring Justice Stephen G. Breyer. But she was asked several questions about diversity, and what role her Latina heritage and humble upbringing played in her decision-making on the Supreme Court.

“It’s a very limiting principle to think of people in those ways, and so for me, I don’t know that I can ever say that the Latina part of me decided this case,” she said. “I am first and foremost a woman but also Latina. I am Catholic. I grew up with a Catholic school education, but then I went to Ivy League schools. I was a prosecutor. I worked for corporations. I have worked as a district court judge, a circuit court judge. I have done countless pro bono activities of different kinds. I have no idea whether one thing or another leads me to a particular view or a particular outcome in any one situation.”

She added: “What I do know is who I am as a judge, and that is committed to the rule of law.”

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As the Supreme Court next term will consider once again whether universities can consider race in admission decisions, Sotomayor left little doubt that, as she has decided in previous cases, affirmative action should be allowed.

She attributed some doubt about her qualifications for the court to some people’s belief that “affirmative action opened the door for you.”

“They forget that you don’t judge a person by who opens the door; you judge them by what they did when they went through the door,” Sotomayor said to loud applause.

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Diagnosed with diabetes as a child, Sotomayor wears a mask while on the bench even when her colleagues do not. She did not wear one Tuesday, and instead it was the students who were masked as she walked among them answering questions. “You’re vaccinated?” she asked one, before posing for a photo.

The Supreme Court is still closed to the public because of the pandemic, but this week saw the justices venturing out.

Justice Amy Coney Barrett was at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California, where other justices have preceded her. She and Sotomayor made a similar plea — read the justices’ opinions — as the court faces a divisive term in which they will consider expanding gun rights and limiting abortion rights, among other controversial topics.

Barrett said readers should ask themselves, “Does [the decision] read like something that was purely results driven and designed to impose the policy preferences of the majority, or does this read like it actually is an honest effort and persuasive effort, even if one you ultimately don’t agree with, to determine what the Constitution and precedent requires?”

She said that is how Americans should judge the court. “Is its reasoning that of a political or legislative body, or is its reasoning judicial?” she asked.

Barrett’s appearance was interrupted by a heckler; a group called Rise4AbortionRightsLA posted a video on its Twitter account showing a woman shouting at Barrett, “You are an enslaver of women.” A webcast of Barrett’s interview paused during the disruption.

When it returned, Barrett, 50, said, “As a mother of seven, I am used to distractions and sometimes even outbursts.” The line brought a round of applause.

Barrett said the commute in Washington has complicated family life, although her husband, Jesse Barrett, also a lawyer, has been working from home and handles the cooking. She said she misses being “just Amy” in their former home in South Bend, Ind., where she could visit her favorite CrossFit gym without fear of a photo turning up online.

Sotomayor, who said she learned to swim as an adult and took dancing lessons in her 50s, has a new hobby: poker. She said she has read books and watched the World Series of Poker. She invites friends over for dinner and all the liquor they want, she said, before fleecing them.

Berger reported from St. Louis.

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