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What Kagan could learn from Sotomayor

Guest Blogger

Not so long ago Sonia Sotomayor had the same concerns as Elena Kagan does now: facing down questions in a hearing on her nomination for the Supreme Court, then working further toward her confirmation and finally, if all goes well, jumping into her new job as a justice. As Antonia Felix shows in “Sonia Sotomayor: The True American Dream,” released this month by Berkley Books, the newest member of the high court could offer the nominee more than a few pointers on the path from nomination to confirmation to day-to-day life on the bench.

By Antonia Felix

As Elena Kagan awaits the Senate vote on her confirmation, what could she learn from the associate justice who just wrapped up her first term on the Supreme Court?

First, make the rounds in those Senate office buildings. Before and after her confirmation hearings, Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor had face-to-face meetings with 92 senators, which is probably a record, and it paid off. Giving senators an opportunity to “chat personally and talk openly” with her, as she described those meetings, was time well spent. Those informal conversations resulted in six unexpected votes for her confirmation.

Another tip Justice Sotomayor could pass along to her potential colleague is to expect a congenial environment in what appears to the rest of us as a contentious, fractured court. While the conservative and liberal blocs are polarized in their opinions, all of the justices have been warm and welcoming as Sotomayor learns the ropes. They invite her to phone with questions at any time and are “delightfully generous” in offering advice.

In conference, while the junior associate awaits her turn (last) to explain the reasons for her vote, she can anticipate thoughtful presentations that meet her expectations of how earnestly each decision is made.

Kagan could also gain from advice President Obama gave to Sotomayor when he offered her the nomination last year. The president asked her to promise him two things: to remain the person she is and to stay connected to her community.

Easy, Sotomayor told him, because she could not be any other way. Being herself on the court has included jumping in with lively debate during oral argument from day one and refreshing the Supreme Court lexicon with vocabulary such as “undocumented immigrant” rather than “illegal immigrant,” a first for the court.

Being herself has also meant personally answering letters from children and continuing to visit schools in her native South Bronx to inspire the next generation to reach for their dreams as she did.

As an appellate judge for 11 years, Sotomayor was prepared for the extraordinary workload of the Supreme Court, something that will be a formidable task for Kagan as it has been for every justice who did not arrive from a circuit court. Sotomayor could soften Kagan’s transition to the other side of the bench with tales of how she learned to manage the massive amount of reading when she first went to the appellate bench 12 years ago.

Maybe she would mention the change in attitude among the lawyers who approached her three-judge appellate bench during that move from trial court to the appellate circuit. Throughout her six years as a trial judge, male attorneys frequently lectured her on how to run her courtroom. None of that behavior in the appeals courtroom or the Supreme Court -- aside from the swipe Justice Thomas made at her choice of words in her first opinion last year. Perhaps she and Kagan could compare notes on the most egregious acts of gender bias they’ve encountered in their hard-won careers.

That’s a conversation I’d love to hear, a reminder of how far we still have to come -- yet a salute to all the women who excel in vastly male-dominated fields and thereby open doors, challenge the status quo and move us all forward.

Early into her judicial career, Sotomayor lamented the fact that she’d probably never see a woman president in her lifetime. Had she imagined three women on the U.S. Supreme Court? Maybe she’s rethinking the odds about the White House as she contemplates a Baden Ginsburg-Sotomayor-Kagen triumvirate. Three of Nine. A face of the Supreme Court that begins to reflect the citizenry it serves.

By Steven E. Levingston  |  July 12, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Blogger  
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