Tag Archives: Supreme Court

Constitution Day at Stockton University – Joan Biskupic lecture on Chief Justice John Roberts

This year, Stockton’s celebration of Constitution Day fell on the actual anniversary of the signing of the United States Constitution in Philadelphia. This being one of my favorite holidays, I attended the plenary lecture which followed a day of activities with guest speaker Joan Biskupic.

Biskupic is a journalist (CNN), lawyer and biographer. Her talk focused on John Roberts, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Her biography entitled The Chief: The Life and Turbulent Times of Chief Justice John Roberts was released in March of this year, and already Roberts has served up more surprises, particularly blocking a citizenship question on the US census. His opinion was based not just on the question of whether the agency involved had the right to add a question, but also whether the reasons for making the change were “contrived”.

Biskupic emphasized the importance of the DC Circuit of the US Court of Appeals as a “pipeline” to the Supreme Court.

During his years of private legal practice (1992 to 2003) Roberts argued 39 cases before the Supreme Court.

Roberts is a conservative, placed on the Court in 2005 by GW Bush and, unusually, elevated directly to Chief Justice, rather than serving as Associate Justice first. Some of his opinions reflect his attitude that the Supreme Court is “not a legislature” and many matters must be left to the states.

What interests Biskupic most is judicial PROCESS – the “horse trading” and “sausage making” behind the decisions which often (as in gay marriage) have huge impacts on American life. Much of this is reflected in drafts that are circulated as justices develop their opinions. How does one justice influence another? Justice RBG warns observers “it’s not over ‘til it’s over”. The Supreme Court sometimes surprises even the most sophisticated analysts.

Biskupic says that in her next life, she wants to be an archivist. She loves pouring over documents. I consider this a very valuable contribution to society (and I never met anyone else who shared that aspiration).

I didn’t stay for the entire Q/A session, but it got off to a good start due to excellent moderation. The first question was about whom she interviewed for The Chief. Roberts is a persistent interviewer. She describes Roberts as “inscrutable”. He never permitted recording of their conversations. Other questions directed to Biskupic pertained to “sleeper decisions”, decisions of greatest consequence and “term limits” for the Supreme Court.

Biskupic published three other Supreme Court biographies and additional related books, some coauthored by Elder Witt (C-Span). I’m most interested in Breaking In: The Rise of Sonia Sotomayor and the Politics of Justice (2014). I believe I read Biskupic’s 2006 biography of Sandra Day O’Connor, though my memory is uncertain, and perhaps I read a different author.

The Art of the Interview – Questions for Sandra Day O’Connor

My college hosted a distinguished guest this week, retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. It was exciting and generated considerable buzz, but ultimately there were empty seats in the arena. Students were a minor segment of the audience.

The event was titled “A Conversation with Sandra Day O’Connor” and a “moderator” put questions to the Justice. She neither gave prepared remarks, nor answered any questions taken from the audience. I was dissatisfied by the moderator – I feel we could have learned much more about our guest. Plainly the moderator greatly admired the Justice. That’s fine. His desire to get her to recount certain anecdotes from her books was awkward.

I had been told O’Connor wouldn’t discuss Supreme Court cases or “anything controversial”. That’s okay – her decisions are undoubtedly available in the Court’s records, and why should she participate in controversy? She is 83 years old and deserves to be selective in her comments.

I wish questions from students had been solicited in advance, in writing. I’m sure they would have been interesting, and given the students a sense of participation.

So what would I have liked to hear about?

  • What does she like to read? Is there a book (or several) on her bedside table or in her suitcase during travel?
  • Growing up on a ranch, did she have animals? a favorite dog or horse?
  • What was her favorite course or teacher in high school? In College?
  • What does she wish someone had told her when she was 20 years old?
  • When did she decide to study law? What branch of law did she specialize in?
  • What “technology” does she use? Is there any technology she has decided against for her personal use?
  • Does she identify as a feminist? a role model?
  • What organizations did she join in college?

You get the idea… My son, who has worked in radio, sometimes slips into “interview mode” and elicits interesting information that others of us have missed. One year at Thanksgiving, he asked Grandaddy (my husband’s father) what Thanksgiving had been like when he was young. That triggered reminiscences that kept us entertained for an hour! He told us how to catch an alligator in a North Carolina swamp…

I checked out Sandra Day O’Connor on Facebook. She does not have a personal page, but Facebook posts information from Wikipedia. Interestingly, O’Connor is listed as “politician”, Ruth Bader Ginsberg is listed as “author” and Sonia Sotomayor as “public figure”.  Hmm…

The College is fortunate to have an endowment directed towards bringing distinguished speakers to campus. Who will be next?!

“My Beloved World” by Sonia Sotomayor

This is a blockbuster autobiography. Sotomayor’s life is the “American dream”. She came from a very poor Spanish speaking Puerto Rican family in the Bronx. Her family travelled “back to the island” regularly , giving her access to the richness of Puerto Rican culture, but she had almost no contact with the wonders of nearby Manhattan. She became a lawyer, then a judge, and now serves on the Supreme Court, as its first Hispanic appointee. She is sometimes referred to as a “poster child” for affirmative action.

As a small child, Sonia took charge of her diabetes, which was diagnosed when she was seven. Her parents couldn’t handle the necessary daily injections of insulin, so Sonia administered them herself, understanding perfectly well that mismanagement of the disease could disable or kill her. Another turning point of her childhood, a few years later, was her mother’s decision to speak English at home. Sonia’s ability to cope with school increased exponentially. Much later in life, she was part of an organization that went to court to establish that public schools must provide bilingual education. Before then, many Spanish speaking students were classified as disabled or “slow” because teachers could not communicate with them.

In her autobiography, Sotomayor writes about learning how to learn. As early as elementary school, she approached high performing peers and asked them HOW they got good grades. Her parochial education placed a heavy emphasis on memorization, and she was floored when, as a junior in high school, she was asked to write an essay and EXPLAIN her ideas. At Princeton, a helpful friend kept passing her the “classics” she had missed, like Alice in Wonderland.

Finding mentors became a habit that benefitted Sotomayor at every stage of her education and career, though she was stubborn and admits she often listened carefully to advice and then did something else. Parts of this book should be required reading for college students. Sotomayor got in over her head time after time, and worked her way up with gritty determination.

Now a Justice of the Supreme Court and the first Hispanic to hold such a position, Sotomayor deals daily with the most important issues of our day, including immigration law. Her autobiography ends with her first judgeship, but I look forward to a second installment. She’s an energetic writer and a clear thinker, and has a wonderful life story to share.