Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor on Jan. 5 lamented the high court’s conservative tilt, telling legal educators she felt a “sense of despair” at the direction taken by the court following rulings that include overturning Roe v. Wade, a decision that handed a major victory to pro-lifers.
She made the remarks during an hourlong conversation with University of California, Berkeley School of Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky before hundreds of law professors at the Association of American Law Schools’ annual meeting in San Diego.
“I did have a sense of despair about the direction my court was going,” Sotomayor said, adding that she was “shell-shocked” and “deeply sad” about the Supreme Court’s decision on abortion at the end of its term in June.
Sotomayor was one of the dissenting voices when, last summer, the court’s 6–3 conservative majority overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade decision that had legalized abortion nationwide, handing control back to the states.
In her remarks to the law professors, Sotomayor did not mention the abortion case specifically, called Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. She also said nothing of the unprecedented May leak of a draft version of that decision before the Supreme Court’s official verdict.
Sotomayor, along with Justices Elena Kagan and Ketanji Brown Jackson, is one of three liberal justices on the nine-member bench. She was appointed by former President Barack Obama in 2009.
The remaining six Supreme Court justices were nominated by Republican presidents, including three by President Donald Trump.
Sotomayor said she’d continue to “tilt at windmills” and be a dissenting voice among her conservative colleagues on the bench, while expressing hope for the high court to swing back to the left.
“It may take time but I think we will get back on track,” Sotomayor said.
Trump’s appointment of three justices—Neil Gorsuch in 2017, Brett Kavanaugh in 2018, and Amy Coney Barrett in 2020—gave the court its conservative super-majority.
Chemerinsky said during his conversation with Sotomayor that his law students found the Supreme Court’s conservative leanings a depressing state of affairs.
Sotomayor replied by saying that it’s about keeping up the fight even if you end up a loser.
“It’s not an option to fall into despair,” Sotomayor said. “I have to get up and keep fighting.”
On June 24, 2022, the Supreme Court ruled 5–4 in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, ruling that there’s no constitutional right to abortion and so returned the regulation of abortion to the states.
The decision prompted protests at the justices’ homes, a foiled attempt to assassinate Justice Brett Kavanaugh, and targeted harassment of the justices in public by left-wing groups.
Justice Alito Gets Standing Ovation for Overturning Roe v. Wade
While Sotomayor expressed dismay at the landmark abortion ruling and the court’s conservative tilt more broadly at the Association of American Law Schools’ annual meeting, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito recently received a standing ovation from a hall full of lawyers for voting to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Alito received enthusiastic praise for the decision in November 2022 at the 40th-anniversary gala for the Federalist Society, a conservative-constitutionalist lawyers’ group.
Former Michigan Supreme Court Justice Stephen Markham, founder of the Federalist Society’s District of Columbia chapter, said the Dobbs decision would earn Alito a place in history.
“The Dobbs decision will forever be an indelible part of Justice Alito’s legacy,” Markham said to cheers during the dinner.
“I don’t know of any decision, on any court, by any judge, of which that judge could be more proud of that legacy.”
Alito, who was appointed by former President George W. Bush, didn’t reference the Dobbs decision, instead offering lighthearted anecdotes about the Federalist Society.
But Alito did tell a Heritage Foundation audience on Oct. 25, 2022, that the Dobbs decision painted a bull’s-eye on the backs of conservative justices, making them “targets for assassination.”
Justice Barrett, who was present at the Federalist Society event in November alongside Alito—and also received a loud standing ovation—quipped that, “It’s really nice to have a lot of noise made not by protesters outside of my house.”
With security threats to Supreme Court justices over the Roe v. Wade decision still a fresh memory, Chief Justice John Roberts recently praised programs that protect judges, saying that “we must support judges by ensuring their safety.”
Roberts made the remark in an annual year-end report about the federal judiciary (pdf), though he, like the others, did not specifically mention the Dobbs decision.
Still, it appeared the fallout from the decision that overturned Roe v. Wade was fresh on his mind.
“Judicial opinions speak for themselves, and there is no obligation in our free country to agree with them. Indeed, we judges frequently dissent—sometimes strongly—from our colleagues’ opinions, and we explain why in public writings about the cases before us,” Roberts wrote.
Following the leaked draft abortion ruling and threats to Kavanaugh, lawmakers passed legislation bolstering security for the justices and their families.
Matthew Vadum and Reuters contributed to this report.