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I can honestly say I’ve never seen a liberal humanize Clarence Thomas as eloquently as this.
Then again, I’ve never seen a liberal humanize Clarence Thomas.
And she did it in front of an audience of progressives, to boot. Here are your two feelgood minutes of the day:
“Justice Thomas is the one justice in the building that literally knows every employee’s name, every one of them. . . . he is a man who cares deeply about the court as an institution, about the people who work there — about people.” – Justice Sotomayor pic.twitter.com/Pz4TKWeFi3
— JCN (@judicialnetwork) June 17, 2022
Sotomayor is the most aggressive ideologue of the three liberals in her questioning during oral arguments. She was also at the heart of the rumors last year that Neil Gorsuch refused to wear a mask on the bench to help protect her from COVID. (Both she and he denied it.) And of course, the Court is experiencing a … difficult stretch lately between the leak of the Dobbs draft, the cameo from Ginni Thomas in January 6 coverage, and reported infighting over matters various and sundry.
That clip isn’t what you’d expect from this particular justice at this particular moment.
In fact, the last time Thomas himself spoke publicly about the Court, he used the opportunity to take a thinly veiled shot at John Roberts:
“The court that was together 11 years was a fabulous court. It was one you looked forward to being a part of,” Thomas said, setting the end of that era as 2005, when Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist died and Roberts replaced him.
“We actually trusted — we might have been a dysfunctional family, but we were a family,” Thomas said, adding, “You trusted each other, laughed together. You went to lunch together every day. … This is not the court of that era.”
Of the three liberals on the Court, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan are both typically assumed to be chummier with the conservatives than Sotomayor is. Breyer is courtly and seemingly unflappable. Kagan is a consensus-builder. It’s Sotomayor, the most ostentatiously activist of the bunch, whom you might guess would bear grudges against the Republican majority. And if any Republican is likely to prove especially grating to her, you might further guess that it’d be Mr. Conservative, Clarence Thomas, the left’s least favorite justice.
Not so. In fact, Sotomayor spoke warmly of Thomas last year too:
As an example, Sotomayor explained that people find it odd that she considers Justice Clarence Thomas a friend, even though their judicial philosophies are so different. But she said there are few men who have a “kinder heart” than him. When someone in her family died, he sent flowers. And when she has been sick, he checked in on her.
“I see in him the basic caring about people that I have,” Sotomayor said. “We are both committed friends and committed family members.
“And so, in seeing that good in him, there is no reason for me to take our personal disputes and translate it into our personal interactions. We work together. We have to work together for the rest of our time on the court.”
It’s remarkable that she’d go to bat for Thomas in a roomful of lefties when we’re probably just days away from Roe being overturned. Maybe that’s who she is, able to compartmentalize her political grievances from her personal feelings to an unusual degree in this era. Or maybe the justices have decided, individually or collectively, that the institutional blow they took from the Dobbs draft being leaked needs to be remedied somehow. If you’re worried about the public viewing the Court as just another political actor bitterly divided along partisan lines, one way to counter that impression is to remind the public that the justices admire each other. You’ll never catch someone in Congress saying that about someone on the other side. It could be, in other words, that Sotomayor’s engaged in a small bit of institutional credibility-building here.
To see how that’s working out for her among liberals this aftenoon, scroll through the replies here.