One of the Supreme Court’s most liberal justices, Sonia Sotomayor, raised eyebrows from conservatives and ire from progressives for her charitable comments about her colleague and perhaps the court’s most conservative justice, Clarence Thomas.
“He’s the first one that when my stepfather died sent me flowers in Florida,” Sotomayor said before the left-leaning American Constitution Society on June 16. “He is a man who cares deeply about the court as an institution, about the people who work there. … You really can’t begin to understand an adversary unless you step away from looking at their views as motivated in bad faith, but until you can look at their views and think about what the human reaction is that’s motivating those views.”
Sotomayor’s comments were in response to a question about her personal interactions with conservative colleagues. Conservatives hold a 5-4 majority on the high court, where sharp ideological division has intensified amid an expected ruling that could overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 case that legalized abortion nationally.
An unprecedented leak of a draft opinion in April suggested the court was poised to overturn Roe in its ruling of another abortion case, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. That leak is being investigated. Meanwhile, the expected ruling, which could come any day, has raised tensions in Washington, D.C., and nationally between pro-abortion activists and pro-life groups and the politicians who support them.
Sotomayor told the lawyers group: “I suspect I have probably disagreed with him more than with any other justice, that we have not joined each other’s opinions more than anybody else. And yet Justice [Clarence] Thomas is the one justice in the building that literally knows every employee’s name. Every one of them.
“And not only does he know their names, he remembers their families’ names and histories. He’s the first one who will go up to someone, when you’re walking with him, and say, ‘Is your son OK? How’s your daughter doing in college?’”
Thomas, who turns 74 this week, is a devout Roman Catholic. He was confirmed in 1991 after President George H.W. Bush nominated him to the court. Sotomayor, 67, who was raised Catholic, began her tenure on the court after being nominated by President Barack Obama in 2009.
“For all of the acrimony around the Supreme Court these days,” wrote Dan McLaughlin at the National Review, “it is nice to hear this public tribute by Justice Sonia Sotomayor to being friends with her colleague Clarence Thomas, before an audience at the American Constitution Society that was obviously not sympathetic to Thomas.”
Lawyer Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, who is staunchly pro-life, commented on Twitter: “Everybody who works, or has in the last three decades worked, at the Supreme Court knows that what Justice Sonia Sotomayor says about her colleague Justice Clarence Thomas is true. Still she deserves praise for saying it. She knows how deeply many of her own admirers despise him.”
The friendship between ideological foes is not unprecedented on the high court. The justices spend many hours over decades working through complex legal cases and related opinions. The late arch-conservative Justice Antonin Scalia was known to forge deep friendships along the ideological spectrum of the court. He and the late liberal Ruth Bader Ginsburg had a rich friendship. And in tribute to Scalia, fellow Justice Elena Kagan once told about how Scalia took her hunting in Wyoming.
Such friendly outreach to those we lack commonality with is commended in Scripture in numerous places.
The Apostle Paul wrote in Romans 12:18, “If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men.”
Paul wrote in Philippians 2:3-4: “Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.”
And Jesus made clear in Matthew 5:43-44: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you.”
These passages are useful reminders of the Christian’s call to represent Christ in a time of social upheaval and ideological differences.
Photo: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst/Alamy