4 Times Sonia Sotomayor Showed the Value of Diverse Voices in the Judicial System

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In a 5-to-3 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that police officers can use evidence acquired during illegal stops if it turns out the person being searched had a warrant out for his or her arrest. The ruling – which essentially provides a workaround for police stops needing to be based on reasonable suspicion – is another blow to citizens’ Fourth Amendment rights. Utah v. Strieff arose after Officer Douglas Fackrell, who acted on a tip, monitored a South Salt Lake home for evidence of “narcotics activity.” When he saw Edward Strieff leave his home, he stopped him and then through a check, arrested him for a minor traffic violation, according to The New York Times. After searching him, Strieff found a baggie containing meth. The SCOTUS had to determine the admissibility of the evidence.

With Justice Clarence Thomas representing the majority, he wrote, “Officer Fackrell was at most negligent… there is no evidence that Officer Fackrell’s illegal stop reflected flagrantly unlawful police misconduct.” But you don’t need to be a legal scholar to see that this all sorts of fucked up, and that it puts a large target on the backs of minority communities. Luckily, our favorite justice, Sonia Sotomayor, stepped in and dropped truth bombs with her dissent.

In an 11-page dissenting opinion, she begins by spelling out the serious ramifications of the case. “Do not be soothed by the opinion’s technical language: This case allows the police to stop you on the street, demand your identification, and check it for outstanding traffic warrants–even if you are doing nothing wrong,” she wrote. “If the officer discovers a warrant for a fine you forgot to pay, courts will now excuse his illegal stop and will admit into evidence anything he happens to find by searching you after arresting you on the warrant.”

As she struck down each point, she explained that nothing about the case is an isolated incident, and that in a place like Ferguson, Missouri, the 76 percent of residents with outstanding warrants against them don’t have any Fourth Amendment rights. Citing W.E.B Du Bis, James Baldwin, and Ta-Nehisi Coates, Sotomayor explains how “suspicionless stops” disproportionately affect people of color.

“For generations, black and brown parents have given their children ‘the talk’ – instructing them never to run down the street; always keep your hands where they can be seen; do not even think of talking back to a stranger – all out of fear of how an officer with a gun will react to them,” she wrote. “By legitimizing the conduct that produces this double consciousness, this case tells everyone, white and black, guilty and innocent, that an officer can verify your legal status at any time. It says that your body is subject to invasion while courts excuse the violation of your rights. It implies that you are not a citizen of a democracy but the subject of a carceral state, just waiting to be cataloged.”

While the subject of this search is a white man, Justice Sotomayor has the foresight to see how harmful this ruling is for already marginalized communities. Once again, Sotomayor proves that being a Latina justice is an asset to the Supreme Court. Because of her scathing but very real dissent, we’re looking at four other times that she spoke the truth:


When she casually revealed that she has cousins who have been incarcerated

In 1987, an all-white jury sat on the capital murder trial of a then 18-year-old black man, Timothy Tyrone Foster, who was accused of killing an elderly white woman. During the jury selection process for the trial, four potential black jurors were all dismissed by prosecutors for reasons that they claim weren’t race related, (except new evidence points to the fact that they probably were). Foster was ultimately found guilty, and sentenced to death.

Just two years prior to Foster v. Chatman, a case called Batson v. Kennedy established a rule to prevent juries from being stacked in racially motivated ways against minorities. But after Foster’s lawyers got the jury selection notes 20 years later, they learned that the four black people being considered for the jury were marked “Definite NOs,” according to Slate.

When Sotomayor learned that a potential juror’s cousin had been arrested, the justice struck back. “What did they do with the failure to ask Ms. Garrett any questions about the issues that troubled them, for example, her cousin’s arrest?,” Sotomayor said. “There’s an assumption that she has a relationship with this cousin. I have cousins who I know have been arrested, but I have no idea where they’re in jail. I hardly—I don’t know them. But he didn’t ask any questions. Doesn’t that show pretext?”


When she told her colleagues that you can't wish away racial inequality

In 2014, Sotomayor delivered another impassioned argument when the court upheld Michigan’s choice to do away with considering race in public university admissions. In a 58-page dissent, she explained, “This refusal to accept the stark reality that race mattes is regrettable. The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race, and to apply the Constitution with eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination…. As members of the judiciary tasked with intervening to carry out the guarantee of equal protection, we ought not sit back and wish away, rather than confront, the racial inequality that exists in our society.”


On benefitting from affirmative action

“I am a product of affirmative action. I am the perfect affirmative action baby,” she said. “I am Puerto Rican, born and raised in the south Bronx. My test scores were not comparable to my colleagues at Princeton and Yale. Not so far off so that I wasn’t able to succeed at those institutions.”


On being doubted along the way:

In an interview with NPR, she bluntly talked about how much harder it is to be a Latina professional. “You have to work harder. … In every position that I’ve been in, there have been naysayers who don’t believe I’m qualified or who don’t believe I can do the work. And I feel a special responsibility to prove them wrong. I think I work harder than a lot of other people because of that sense of responsibility.”

But she also clearly explained that being Latina doesn’t influence her decisions. “Does it mean that I think that I have an obligation to any particular group including Latinos? No. My job is my job and, particularly being a judge, I would be doing a disservice to the Latino community if I ruled on the basis of a preference for any group. … I have to rule as I do on the basis of the law … but I do feel that I have a special responsibility to work harder to prove myself because I am the first of a group that has been perceived as being incapable of doing whatever it is that I’ve had the benefit of becoming a part of.”