Sotomayor, Barrett encourage civility in front of nation’s governors

Liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor and conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett jointly encouraged the nation’s governors on Friday to emulate the Supreme Court’s collegiality, despite the divisive political climate.

“I think you can do so much, honestly, by being seen in public with people who otherwise politically disagree with you, to have Republicans and Democrats together, friendships across the aisle,” Barrett said.

“I think speaking and reasoning in civil ways, I mean, those are things that people do in their regular lives, that we do on the court, that you can do,” she continued. “And that’s the kind of example for the younger generation I think we need in this country.”

The two justices appeared Friday afternoon on stage together before dozens of governors as the latest installment in Utah Gov. Spencer Cox’s (R) “Disagree Better” initiative.

Held as part of the National Governors Association’s winter meeting in the nation’s capital, the hourlong discussion focused on how the justices promote civility and collegiality despite their disagreements on monumental issues.

“You also have to deal with the fact, like we do in part, that the public has a very short attention span,” Sotomayor told the governors.

“But I don’t think that that should stop you from ever thinking about the fact that explanation and your conduct in listening and explaining yourself and answering why the other side has not convinced you in a respectful way,” she added. “Those processes of the court can be emulated by others.”

The justices spoke at length about the court’s traditions, including the justices’ regular lunches, describing how they spend significant time however.

Both Sotomayor and Barrett, however, conceded they have no interest in going on hunting trips together like the late conservative Justice Antonin Scalia and liberal Justice Elena Kagan were known to do.

“I’m a New Yorker, so is she, but she’s lost it,” Sotomayor joked of Kagan. “He really has — there’s no way you’re going to get me up at the crack of dawn to go sit in the water waiting for a bird to land.”

But the duo said they find other ways, like private dinners at each other’s homes, to maintain warm relations.

Their talk came as the Supreme Court’s approval rating plummets in the wake of ethics controversies and recent major rulings on divisive issues like affirmative action and abortion.

The justices encouraged the governors to take the time to dive deeper into the high court’s work, including by listening to an oral argument or reading a full written opinion. Sotomayor at one point asked the audience who had read an opinion cover-to-cover, and many of the governors did not raise their hands.

Barrett at one point invoked last term’s decision in which the justices 6-3 along ideological lines struck down President Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan.

“There was a vigorous debate in the country about the student loan forgiveness program, but the opinion didn’t mirror that debate,” Barrett said. “It wasn’t about whether loan forgiveness is a good thing or a bad thing.”

She added, “You can’t know whether you agree or disagree with what the court did, because it’s just based on the policy bottom line, without seeing the reason for why the court reached the result that it did.”

Sotomayor echoed similar sentiments, criticizing how politicians have transformed how judges describe their interpretive approaches — like originalism — into “buzzwords,” asserting that it takes away the nuances of those analyses.

“I think the worst thing that’s happened to the judiciary is political parties,” Sotomayor said.

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