On September 26, the entire undergraduate student body received an email from the Office of Alumni Affairs about the upcoming conference “She Roars: Celebrating Women at Princeton,” the second-ever event of its kind. While the three-day conference was geared mostly towards returning alumnae, one event was open to all members of the University community: “A Conversation with Sonia Sotomayor ’76 and Elena Kagan ’81, Associate Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States.” At noon the following day, the email announced, tickets would be available to hear the third and fourth female Justices of the Supreme Court address an audience in Jadwin Gymnasium.
The email was understated: no bold font, no colors, no flyers attached. It listed this event as one of several. Even so, in any situation, it would likely have drawn a big crowd. But by the time tickets went on sale at noon on September 27, Brett Kavanaugh’s hearing had been airing for two hours. Most of the students who had been cueing up all morning for tickets in Frist Campus Center were sitting on the floor, headphones in, watching the testimony on a laptop. Attendance, or a strong show of disappointment when the tickets ran out, felt almost like a civic duty after such a dramatic week in the upper echelons of the United States justice system.
One week later, on October 5, more than a thousand people streamed towards Jadwin starting a full hour before the event. The alumnae who had returned for “She Roars” sat on folding chairs on the gym floor. Students crowded into the bleachers. From this bird’s-eye view, the tables where conference-attendees would eventually dine looked like little Halloween candies in their inevitable black and orange. It was hot there, and the heat compounded with the crowded bleachers added a sporting sort of enthusiasm to the general excitement. People hooted; they were quick to laugh. The Justices often had to wait for clapping to die down before continuing.
The discussion was moderated by Heather Gerken ’91, the Dean of Yale Law School, who read a series of questions that had been submitted by students and alumnae. She asked why each had chosen Princeton, about mentors they had had, about career paths, about their lives as Justices. Justice Sotomayor was a crowd pleaser. She was had strong ideas that she expressed pithily, proving effortlessly quotable and wholly likable. She was consistently earnest: In another world, she said, she would have been a salsa dancer, but in this one, she had loved being a lawyer and a judge, and now she loves being a Justice. “The law was my dream.” Justice Kagan was more inclined to answer directly. She performed less; she was frank and slightly dry, which was its own, less flashy variety of compelling. Her dream job was to be “Serena Williams, or something.” They complemented each other well, and when they joked about getting C’s on papers at Princeton, they brought the rest of the room into their conversation.
The subject of the hearings from the prior week was not mentioned by name, not by Dean Gerken or by either of the Justices. But Gerken did mention the troubling series of events in general terms: Regarding the events of the past week, “People have trouble even talking to one another,” she said. With such a polarizing issue, “There is a struggle to see things as they really are.” She did not ask a direct question, and the Justices did not give a direct answer, but the conversation briefly pivoted towards an articulation of the dangers of partisanship and a political Supreme Court.
There has been a fair amount of polemic claiming that the Supreme Court has already lost its battle to remain nonpartisan. Garrett Epps, for example, articulated this common trope in his “Requiem for the Supreme Court,” published in the Atlantic on October 7: the court as an independent arbiter of the rule of law “is gone forever. We will spend at least the rest of my lifetime fighting over its rotting corpse. No prating about civility can change that fact. The fight is upon us now and the party that shirks it will be destroyed.” From Sotomayor and Kagan’s responses to Gerken’s prompt, it is clear that neither Justice believes this to be true. I think if asked, both would actually vehemently disagree with Epps. But they did respond to Dean Gerken’s prompt with a plea to avoid going in that dangerous direction.
Kagan responded first with a simple acknowledgment that “it is a difficult time” for the court. She denounced partisanship, explaining: “Our legitimacy depends on [people] seeing the court as different – somehow above the fray.” In her view, the court has truly been above politics in the recent past. She explained that the decisions that garner the most media attention are the 5-4 ones, but “people don’t realize that we agree on a lot. Many decisions are unanimous or very lopsided.” Kagan said that Anthony Kennedy and Sandra Day O’Connor “found the center,” but “it’s not clear if we will continue to have that center going forward.”
Sotomayor said she fully agreed. She traced the recent politicization of the court to when politicians began taking up legal and academic questions, particularly the now well-known originalism versus non-originalism debate in constitutional interpretation. She explained that those discussions have led politicians to try to predict outcomes based on where a judge falls in that debate. “Presidents pick what they think will work for them,” she said. She repeated what Kagan had said: “We need to hold on to our legitimacy.”
Dean Gerken stuck the heavy question right in the middle. She was able to move on smoothly, asking about the curious and sometimes amusing friendships that form among Justices, especially those who generally disagree. Sotomayor and Kagan presented the Justices as chummy. “We don’t talk about work during lunch as a rule,” said Kagan, smiling. “So we know all about each other’s families and kids. And we tell bad jokes. Some are really bad.” “Neither of us tells really bad jokes,” Sotomayor chimed in. “We won’t say who does.”
More than friendliness, though, notable was the respect with which these Justices discussed their colleagues. In one of her most quotable moments, Sotomayor said, “Difference of opinion doesn’t brand you an evil person. If you start with the idea that people are good and are working for good, you can see that in them.” “Tony” Kennedy was “a master of that.” She spoke with respect nearing reverence of Clarence Thomas. “We almost never vote on the same side of issues. But I know that he knows the name of every person who works in the Supreme Court building – their names, their families’ names. If someone is sick, if a family member has died, he is the first to call or send flowers.”
Towards the end of the talk, Dean Gerken asked about the 2017 study conducted by researchers at Northwestern Law School, which found that female Justices on the supreme court are interrupted more than their male colleagues. Neither seemed perturbed. In her characteristically frank, slightly skeptical tone, Kagan told us she thought there were other factors involved, mostly having to do with seniority on the bench. She did not think that she, Sotomayor, or Justice Ginsburg could identify with those findings. “None of us are shrinking violets,” she said, again smiling. Sotomayor disagreed: “I think the statistics are true,” she said, more seriously. “I just think we don’t care. We all understand that we are one of nine in the end. And each vote is exactly the same.”
Justices Sotomayor and Kagan both spoke about attending Princeton in the first decade women were admitted, and both had the experience of being the only woman in numerous classrooms. They faced discomfort and even opposition that seemed unimaginable that day, when they addressed an audience of thousands at their initially-reluctant alma mater, the majority of whom were women, all of whom had come to this “She Roars” event in the spirit of celebration, about their equal votes.
Following a week in which women were questioning what, in the contemporary political moment, they could or should say, it was especially inspiring to hear the Justices retell that story. It was with optimism that the audience trailed out of Jadwin into the evening light. Not that the questions women were asking did not matter. Not that the frequent interruption of female judges is not real. But that evening, we could believe there was progress to look forward to.