Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in a rare public appearance during the frenzied crush of Supreme Court opinion season, delivered public praise of her colleague Justice Clarence Thomas and gave a pep talk to progressives Thursday as the embattled institution prepares to issue major rulings driven by the court's conservative majority.
"If it doesn't kill me, it makes me stronger. That is what adversity does to you," an upbeat Sotomayor, one of the court's three liberal justices, told an audience at the American Constitution Society conference in Washington.
In the coming days, the court will issue opinions on abortion, gun rights, immigration, school prayer and climate policy. The justice did not directly address any of the pending cases, or an unprecedented leaked draft opinion by Justice Samuel Alito last month that showed the conservative majority ready to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Sotomayor did, however, discuss how infamous and unjust court decisions can later be corrected, citing the Dred Scott case of 1857, which held that enslaved or free black Americans could not be citizens. She noted that it took eight years and a Civil War to rectify, but that ultimately it was overturned.
"We have to have continuing faith in the court system, in our system of government, in our ability -- I hope not through war -- but through constitutional amendment, to change in legislation, towards lobbying, towards continuing the battle each day to regain the public's confidence that we as a court, as an institution have not lost our way," Sotomayor said.
"We as a society, have taken steps some may disagree with. But if we disagree, we will continue to battle to do justice," she said.
Alito, in his draft opinion in the abortion case, cited the Scott case to justify overturning Roe, arguing that the 1973 landmark opinion was similarly, in his view, wrongly decided from the start.
Sotomayor's appearance was the first by a member of the court's liberal wing since the leaked opinion breached a cherished code of trust, upended court operations and stirred new security threats to the justices, including an alleged assassination attempt on Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
Her remarks also followed public comments by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Clarence Thomas last month, each of whom suggested relations among justices and with their clerks have significantly deteriorated amid recent events.
"When you lose that trust, especially in the institution that I'm in, it changes the institution fundamentally," Thomas said at a conference in May. "You begin to look over your shoulder. It's like kind of an infidelity that you can explain it, but you can't undo it."
Sotomayor heaped praise on Justice Thomas -- who has been sharply criticized by Democrats and progressive legal scholars for his positions in controversial cases and for the alleged involvement of his wife, Ginni Thomas, in efforts to overturn the 2020 election.
Thomas was one of the only justices to dissent from the court's decision to decline to take up several election-related cases.
"I suspect I have probably disagreed with him more than with any other justice, that we have not joined each other's opinions more than anybody else," Sotomayor said, and yet "he is a man who cares deeply about the court as an institution, about the people who work there..."
Thomas has a "very different philosophy of life," Sotomayor continued, "but I think we share a common understanding about people and kindness towards them. That's why I can be friends with him and still continue our daily battle over our difference of opinions in cases."
While many Democrats and progressive activists have been downtrodden about the direction of the Supreme Court with a 6-3 conservative majority -- some are demanding dramatic changes to the size and scope of the court -- Sotomayor urged optimism and civility in the face of disappointment.
"You can lie down and let the truck run you over. Or, you can...get up and build the barricades," she told the crowd. "I don't mean this literally, I mean it figuratively....Look, there are days I get discouraged. There are moments where I am deeply, deeply disappointed. And yes, there have been moments where I've stopped and said, 'Is this worth it anymore?' And every time I do that, I lick my wounds for a while. Sometimes I cry. And then I say, OK -- let's fight."