Justices and Their Personal Trials

When a Denver student asked Justice Sonia Sotomayor on Thursday about the “biggest sacrifice” Sotomayor had made to move ahead professionally, the justice paused and told her audience in the university auditorium (and on C-SPAN) she was about to say something “more personal than you may want” to hear. I thought about how – as was  widely reported during her 2009 nomination — Sotomayor had divorced young, then broken off an engagement in her 40s, and remained single now in her 50s. She had spoken bluntly early in her career about the toll work took on her romantic life, telling one interviewer: “A man who calls you three times and all three times you answer, ‘I’ve got to work late’ … after the third time, he begins thinking ‘Gee, maybe she’s not interested.’”

Predicting Judges: Vaughn Walker to Elena Kagan

Among the first judicial nominees I ever tracked was Vaughn Walker, when I was working for Congressional Quarterly’s weekly magazine and covering the Judiciary Committees on the Hill. In 1989, key Democratic senators, led by California Sen. Alan Cranston, along with several liberal interest groups, opposed President George H.W. Bush’s nomination of Walker to a U.S. district court in San Francisco. It was primarily because of Walker’s membership in a men-only private club.

Save the Herblock Cartoon — and Maybe a Morin

An editorial assistant from Farrar, Straus & Giroux wrote last week to say he was clearing out old correspondence and drafts associated with American Original and to ask whether I wanted anything saved. With the Antonin Scalia biography securely in hard-cover and about to be in paperback (September 1), I said don’t bother. But, I said, if you come across the original Herblock cartoon I acquired for the photo insert, save it.

Justice Ginsburg’s Staying Power

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg opened a speech at the American Bar Association in San Francisco this week by observing, “I have lived long enough to see great changes in our profession.”

A question I’ve heard many times in my travels this summer is how much longer Justice Ginsburg, age 77, a cancer survivor and now a widow, will serve. Watching Justice Ginsburg on Monday (see the ABA video here) and following her activities since the death of her husband, Martin, I believe she will not step down in the next two years and is ready for the long haul, eager to see more changes in the law and profession.

June Opinions: At the Court and In Commencements

Justice Scalia was not on the bench last Thursday, when the Supreme Court, nearing the end of its term, handed down five decisions. When I inquired, I discovered that he had been at Langley High School in McLean, Va., to speak at the graduation of a grandchild. I was curious about his remarks, especially because I had just given the commencement address to graduates of the National Cathedral School in Washington, D.C. 

My audience at the all-girl private high school was different from Justice Scalia’s and my approach more personal. I didn’t expect much overlap in the speech themes, yet I was curious about what Justice Scalia had said and the voices of wisdom he drew on. 

David Souter at Harvard: Timing is Everything

For years, Supreme Court justices, lower court judges and law professors have argued over the merits of Scalia’s approach to constitutional interpretation. Yet last weekend in a commencement speech at Harvard, retired Justice David Souter offered a powerful counterpoint to “originalism” that might eclipse those arguments by virtue of the setting and timing.

 “Even a moment’s thought is good enough to show why it is so unrealistic,” Souter said in his dry, direct manner. “The Constitution has a good share of deliberately open-ended guarantees, like rights to due process of law, equal protection of the law, and freedom from unreasonable searches. … But this explanation hardly scratches the surface.”

Rehnquist: Stopping to Smell the Roses

After I wrote last week about the justices and graduation speeches, a longtime Supreme Court employee reminded me of the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist’s advice for graduates: Stop and smell the roses. “Do not let the law be too jealous a mistress,” he used to say. “You must give yourself time not only to do a variety of things, but to allow yourself time to appreciate and enjoy what you are doing.”

A leader of the Court’s conservative revolution, Rehnquist cut a stern, sometimes cold, figure in the courtroom. Yet he had plenty of friends, liberals among them, outside the marble columned building. He was a man of many interests, travels and recreational pursuits.

Graduation Apprehension

When I was doing research some years back in the files of the late U.S. Appeals Court Judge Skelly Wright, of the District of Columbia Circuit, I came across an exchange between Wright and Justice William Brennan in which they shared their apprehension about giving Commencement speeches. These two giants in the law had regular-Joe worries about boring the graduates and having their words fall flat.

I’ve been thinking about their Commencement aversion this season because I am giving two speeches and have found that for those of us down some rungs, the mental burden is much lighter. We can plumb their most intriguing thoughts to make our points.

Kennedy, Kagan, and the Limits of a New “Persuader”

Since President Obama’s nomination of Elena Kagan last week to succeed retiring Justice John Paul Stevens, there has been a lot of talk about whether she would be a persuasive force in moving Justice Anthony Kennedy to the left. I’ve felt that much of this discussion ignores the limits of a new, junior justice, and I think Monday’s decision in the juvenile sentencing case offers a reminder of Justice Kennedy’s own force.

The Many Narratives of a Court Nomination, and Obama’s ‘Problem-Solving Orientation’

With only two women among the nine justices, one line of thinking goes, President Obama will pick a woman. No, another argument goes, he would not feel so compelled and, anyway, he should save his strongest woman candidate for when pioneering feminist Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 77, retires.