Why Justice Sotomayor Chooses Her Words Carefully

Jun 22, 2014 12:38pm

According to Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, “everyone but everyone breaks the law,” but that doesn’t mean she thinks everyone should be negatively labeled for all questionable actions.

In an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos for “This Week,” Sotomayor explained how this reasoning extended to her choice to use the word “undocumented” instead of “illegal alien” when referring to the immigration debate in a recent Supreme Court opinion.

“We all break laws… I can’t say consciously, unconsciously, because most laws require intent… yet we don’t think of ourselves as criminal,” Sotomayor said. “It’s the label, and labels lead to impressions about criminality, which often is so negative that we’ve stopped thinking about the reason.”

The first Hispanic Supreme Court justice also made a legal distinction as to why referring to immigrants as “undocumented” matters, not only in a judicial context but also in terms of national social relations.

“Most [undocumented aliens], not all of them, have broken the regulatory, administrative law, but some of them have not broken a criminal law,” she told Stephanopoulos. “People paint individuals who are called illegal aliens with broad brushes, thinking that they’re really bad people. But often, many of them are not criminals in the sense that make us think of bad people. They’re not killing other people, they’re not stealing from other people.”

Despite making the case for more careful wording in the immigration debate, Sotomayor did not deny that undocumented immigrants crossing U.S. borders were still breaking the law.

“Yes, I don’t deny that they’re breaking the law, or else their cases wouldn’t come to us,” she said. “But I think we should not write or be painting labels that say more than the situation calls for.”

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