U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor said the nation's highest court needs more diversity of personal backgrounds and professional experience, speaking as a vacancy has refocused attention on the court's makeup.
During a talk Friday at Brooklyn Law School, Sotomayor didn't mention the nomination of Judge Merrick Garland, who is highly respected but wouldn't add racial, religious, or educational diversity to the high court. But Sotomayor, the court's first Latina justice, said "it is important that we have greater diversity on the Supreme Court" and in the legal profession.
"I, for one, do think there is a disadvantage from having (five) Catholics, three Jews, everyone from an Ivy League school," several justices from New York City and no one who practiced criminal defense law outside white-collar settings, Sotomayor told the law school audience.
Sotomayor and some of her colleagues have said before that the high court could benefit from more diversity, but her remarks Friday come in the fraught context of a nomination in unusual limbo.
Since conservative Justice Antonin Scalia's January death left Democratic President Barack Obama with the chance to fill a seat that could shift the court's ideological balance, Senate Republicans have said they will not consider confirming anyone named before the November presidential election.
Some liberal groups hoped Obama, who had previously tapped Sotomayor and Justice Elena Kagan, would nominate another woman or minority. Instead, he tapped Merrick Garland, the chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
Garland, 63, is a white, Jewish former prosecutor with an Ivy League background and a career in the capital — and a centrist reputation the White House may have hoped would put pressure on Republicans to consider him.
Sotomayor didn't mention Garland or touch on the nomination. But in answer to diversity-related questions submitted by Brooklyn Law students, she said she felt that varied backgrounds help justices "educate each other to be better listeners and better thinkers because we understand things from experience."
She recounted a 2009 oral argument in which Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg suggested that her then all-male colleagues had wrongly equated a strip-search of a middle-school girl to changing for gym class in a locker room because they had "never been a 13-year-old girl." The court ultimately ruled, 8-1, that the search was unconstitutional.
Sotomayor stressed that decisions depend on the law, not personal viewpoints or experiences.
"But a different perspective can permit you to more fully understand the arguments that are before you and help you articulate your position in a way that everyone will understand," she said.
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