Sotomayor: Equal justice demands an equal process

Inscribed over the main entrance to the U.S. Supreme Court building are the words “Equal Justice Under Law.” And just what does that mean to justices as they enter the nation’s highest court of law daily to render critical decisions?

“My answer is very simple: We have to give everyone a fair process, give people the ability to be fully heard and ensure that their arguments are considered under the law for the decisions that have affected them,” said Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor during an recent hourlong virtual chat with lawyers, judges and law students.

The program was the centerpiece of the ABA’s four-day “Equity Summit: Advancing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the Legal Profession and Beyond,” sponsored by the Diversity and Inclusion Center and Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Council.

ABA President Reginald M. Turner presented welcome remarks.

Sotomayor in further explaining equal justice under the law said people must understand that there is a difference between moral justice and legal justice.

“Moral justice is a sense of who’s more deserving of an outcome? Legal justice never asks that question. It asks who is deserving under the law?” she said. “The two are often not in sync and that is why people get so disappointed often by court rulings, because they feel sympathy toward one party that they don’t have toward another.”

Sotomayor said separating moral justice from equal justice is an emotional conflict that not only affects ordinary citizens but also judges, lawyers, and anyone involved in the legal system.

“We can’t control the law. The law is made elsewhere. It is enforced by other people. We interpret the disputes under the law and the outcomes may not be what we want,” she said. “We can control the process. If you look at my jurisprudence, you will likely see that where I write the most is when the system has not given the people a fair opportunity to be heard.”

Following a short Q&A with moderator Jaime Taronji, an attorney at the Federal Trade Commission, Sotomayor took questions from the online audience on advice to first-year law students, how to encourage more women to seek judgeships, how she has handled discrimination in her life, and the most helpful piece of advice from her mom.

That advice?

“She gave me life advice that I have applied as a lawyer and as a judge,’’ Sotomayor said. “It was look for the good in every person you have contact with. I have taken that advice to the work that I do.”