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SCOTUS Map: December 2018

Civility and collegiality continued to be a theme in the Supreme Court justices’ appearances this month. On a December 7 visit to Duquesne University, Justice Sonia Sotomayor recounted a conversation about civility with the other justices. Previous justices were at times openly hostile to one another, and the court’s current era of collegiality is perhaps more of an exception than the rule. According to Sotomayor, retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was in large part responsible for this change, initiating traditions such as justice lunches and making sure to speak to Chief Justice John Roberts, before she left the bench, about the importance of maintaining collegiality. Coverage of the event, where Sotomayor received the Honorable Carol Los Mansmann Award for distinguished public service, comes from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

The following day, Sotomayor spoke at Turn of River Middle School in Stamford, Connecticut, about her career and her love of reading. The Round Table, Stamford High School’s newspaper, covered the talk.

While recent headlines about Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg have focused on her health – namely, her recovery from a fall that resulted in three broken ribs, followed by an operation to remove cancerous nodules from her lungs – the justice still found time for multiple public appearances this month, including two events to promote the new biopic “On the Basis of Sex.” On December 11, Ginsburg participated in a Q&A session with NPR reporter Nina Totenberg prior to a screening of the film at the National Archives Museum in Washington. “I’m feeling just fine,” she reassured the audience, according to Variety. “I am meeting with my personal trainer tomorrow.” Additional coverage comes from The Hollywood Reporter.

Ginsburg took the stage with Totenberg again to promote the film on December 15, this time at the Museum of the City of New York. Newsday, CNN and NBC reported on the event, where Ginsburg spoke of the things she missed about her hometown. (Unsurprisingly, Ginsburg most misses the Metropolitan Opera, according to NBC.) The program will be streamed online and aired on public television in early January.

In addition to her movie promotion tour, Ginsburg gave remarks at a naturalization ceremony at the National Archives Museum on December 14, the 227th anniversary of the Bill of Rights. The justice told her own family’s immigration story: “My own father arrived in this land at age thirteen, with no fortune and speaking no English. My mother was born four months after her parents, with several children in tow, came by ship to Ellis Island. My father and my grandparents reached, as you do, for the American Dream. As testament to our nation’s promise, the daughter and granddaughter of immigrants sits on the highest court in the land. In America, land of opportunity, that prospect is within the realm of the achievable.”

Quoting Judge Learned Hand, Ginsburg encouraged the new Americans to pursue the spirit of liberty: “‘The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right. The spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women. The spirit of liberty is the spirit that weighs their interests, alongside its own, without bias.’ May the spirit of liberty, as Judge Hand explained it, be your beacon. May you have the conscience and the courage to act in accord with that high ideal as you play your part in helping to achieve a more perfect union.” TIME and CNN covered the ceremony, and full video is available on C-SPAN.

On December 18, Justice Samuel Alito gave a lecture on globalization and the enforcement of human rights at the Europa Institut at the University of Zurich. Alito spoke of the collision of abstract rights and tradition in the Supreme Court’s rulings on “liberty,” comparing the outcomes of the court’s assisted suicide and same-sex marriage cases. In Washington v. Glucksberg, Alito noted, the court found that the right to assisted suicide is not deeply rooted in the United States’ history and tradition, and is therefore not included in the “liberty” protected by the 14th Amendment. Yet, in Obergefell v. Hodges, Alito continued, “things came out differently”: “This right [to same-sex marriage] certainly did not have deep historical roots. In fact, it appears that no society permitted same-sex marriage until the Netherlands did so, in 2000. Nevertheless, the majority in our court struck down one of society’s most fundamental traditions, namely, that marriage has traditionally been reserved for a couple consisting of a man and a woman.”

During the Q&A portion of the events, an audience member noted that the justice’s votes had perhaps had a negative impact on gay rights and women’s rights in the United States, and asked Alito to offer some concrete ways in which he could expand human rights at home and abroad. Alito stated that his role as a judge is to interpret the Constitution and to enforce rather than to make laws: “The issue in Obergefell was not whether I personally think a same-sex couple can enter into a legally valid marriage, but whether there was any provision in the US Constitution that conferred that right… I don’t think it’s my prerogative as a judge to say, this is what I think liberty means, and impose it on the country. I think it’s something that has to be decided by Congress or by the legislatures of the states.”

Asked to comment on the perception of warring conservative and liberal wings of the Supreme Court, Alito answered: “There are cases in which we divide five to four… but when that happens, it’s based on differences in our ideas about how the Constitution should be interpreted and how statutes should be interpreted. It’s certainly not based on the party of the President who appointed us.”

The University of Zurich posted video of Alito’s talk online.

Recommended Citation: Victoria Kwan | SCOTUS map, SCOTUS Map: December 2018, SCOTUSblog (Dec. 28, 2018, 12:21 PM),