The Yale Law Journal


The People’s Justice?

24 Mar 2014

Over the past few decades, the liberal Justices on the Supreme Court have made their most notable extrajudicial communications about the Constitution in academic venues discussing academic issues. This has limited their appeal to broader audiences. In this Essay, Professor David Fontana explores the distinctive path that Justice Sotomayor has pursued during her first five years on the Court. Justice Sotomayor has spoken to academic audiences, as past liberal Justices have. What is most notable about Justice Sotomayor, though, is that she has also appeared in locations and addressed issues that make her and what she discusses of broader appeal; that gives her the potential, as this Essay discusses, to become the “People’s Justice.” Justice Sotomayor thus may make liberal perspectives on the Constitution more known, more liked, and more comprehensible. For those concerned with pursuing a liberal vision of the Constitution, this could be an important development.


No moment better represented why Justice Sonia Sotomayor could be a different kind of Supreme Court Justice than the events of the Sunday before the second presidential inauguration. Vice President Joseph Biden selected her to administer his oath of office. Justices often play a role during inaugurations, from administering oaths to sitting among other dignitaries in the audience. This time was different, though: Sotomayor agreed to administer the oath to Vice President Biden, but requested that she do so early in the day so she could attend a book signing event open to the general public that afternoon at Barnes & Noble in New York City.1 This moment illustrated what has made Justice Sotomayor unique on the Court during her first five years: Her role as the first publicly affiliated liberal Justice during the past generation to use the unique opportunities Justices have to communicate outside of their judicial opinions with average Americans.

Liberal Justices during the past few decades2 have used their communications outside of their opinions—what this Essay will call “extrajudicial communications”—to play the role of what we might call the “Academic’s Justice.” The content and locations of their extrajudicial communications have been most notable for their academic, intellectual, and technical nature. Their most significant appearances have been at universities, law school moot courts, law school lectures, or meetings of elite bar associations. Their writings have been focused on the law as an academic exercise. The public coverage of the Justices on the left side of the jurisprudential spectrum has mirrored this, often focusing on the liberal need to find an “intellectual counterweight”3 to conservative Justices.4

This academic audience is important for liberal Justices, but the audience for liberal Justices is plural, not singular. By focusing too much on academic topics before academic audiences, liberal Justices have not used their extrajudicial communications to reach broader audiences.

What makes Sotomayor potentially different is her ability to fix this—to serve as the “People’s Justice”5 instead of the “Academic’s Justice.” Sotomayor has made her share of appearances at academic institutions like law schools and has discussed academic topics.6 More notably, though, Sotomayor has made a large number of appearances at events geared toward other audiences. If the medium is the message, then part of what makes Sotomayor different is where she is appearing. Sotomayor has used these appearances (and her best-selling book7) to discuss her life—and the law—in a less academic fashion.

By appearing in different places and talking about the law in a different language, Sotomayor has the potential to be a new kind of liberal Justice by appealing to broader audiences. Her fame might bring new followers to the liberal cause.Her humanity might make them appreciate the liberal cause even more. And her language might make the liberal cause sound different—and more appealing to a broader range of audiences.8

There is an emerging academic literature about the relevance of these audiences to what the Supreme Court does.9 If members of the general public are convinced by what Justices say in their public appearances, they might play a role (via public opinion polls) in influencing what types of federal judges or Supreme Court Justices can be nominated or approved.10 If members of the general public are convinced by what Justices say in their public appearances, that could even play a direct role in influencing how Justices might decide later cases.11 This literature suggests that what Sotomayor can offer liberals might be particularly useful.

This is a short Essay, but some caveats are still important: This Essay is limited to the strategic significance of Justice Sotomayor’s role as the first Justice conventionally classified as a liberal in the past generation to communicate so often to lay audiences.It could be that her public outreach is significant for the entire Supreme Court, and not just for liberals, but that is beyond the scope of this Essay.12 Being a true “People’s Justice” might require a decisional jurisprudence and an opinion-writing style in addition to a public presence. The focus of this Essay is on the extrajudicial dimension of her tenure on the Court—and the tenure of other liberal Justices—because that is where Sotomayor has been the most different, original, and influential in filling gaps left by other liberal Justices. If conservative Justices have been “selling originalism,”13 Justice Sotomayor could help liberals sell their constitutional theory.14

I. the audiences for liberal justices

Liberal Justices have several different constituencies that could be helpful supporters of their causes, and that they therefore have an interest in cultivating. Academics and others with an academic interest in the law are a key constituency for Justices, particularly for liberals. But other legal and political elites and activists—and the hundreds of millions of other Americans—are also key, non-academic constituencies for the Supreme Court.

Scholars are just starting to develop accounts of why public communications matter for Supreme Court Justices. In political science, the importance for the President and Congress of “go[ing] public”15 has been a major topic of discussion,16 and scholars have started to examine foreign constitutional courts going public.17 The importance of public communications for Justices has proven to be more controversial.18

While the few scholars to discuss these public communications have largely (with some notable exceptions19) focused on the judicial opinion,20 either written or oral, extrajudicial communications are arguably even more important. We do not have comprehensive data on the issue, but because of the broader media coverage and ease of comprehension of the topics, these extrajudicial communications could be an even more potent form of public communication.21 Regardless, the reasons public communication through judicial opinions might matter are similar to the reasons extrajudicial communications might matter.

Public communication by Justices can persuade other legal and political actors, as well as members of the general public. Justices can provide “authority, legitimation and status”22 for existing constitutional arguments. Justices can make the implausible into the plausible, by “mov[ing] otherwise marginal ideas into the intellectual mainstream.”23 In addition to the persuasion of others, public communication by Justices can motivate. Not only can preferences be altered, but preferences can also be made more intense. Justices can “inspire[] and motivate[] the claims of politically engaged agents.”24 This motivation can facilitate organization and the provision of labor and other forms of material support for causes consistent with the messages of the Justices.

A. The Academic Audience for Liberal Justices

For all Justices—but particularly for liberal Justices—academic audiences are crucially important. It may be the case that the opposite of what makes other audiences interested makes academics interested.25 A focus on the complexity that comes from larger, less practical issues addressed using a technical language tends to mark the social space of the academic world.26 Academic communication is frequently characterized by a sense of exclusion and exclusivity. It takes place in locations where entry is socially restricted, and focuses on content that not everyone can understand.27

Academic discussions can therefore be identified by their more exclusive location and content. To communicate with academic audiences, it is best to go to the kinds of exclusive settings where the academically inclined are located—universities, law school moot courts, law school lecture series, or national, elite bar association gatherings that feature more academic discussions. Given these exclusive settings, and these exclusive audiences, the content of these conversations tends to be more academic as well. The conversation is more likely to be focused on issues like originalism or judicial restraint—the more technical and therefore more exclusive subject matters of academic legal discussions.28

Academics are an important audience for Justices because they are an attentive audience, with the time and leisure to follow the Court.29 Academics have incentives to critique the Court. Academics who make important arguments regarding the work of the Court—for instance, John Hart Ely’s book justifying the work of the Warren Court30—will receive professional acclaim in the legal community for their insights.

For liberals, academics have played a particularly crucial role for at least the past few decades. Liberals dominate law faculties.31 Law professors have held important roles in Democratic administrations.32 Law professors have been instrumental in the creation and operation of liberal legal organizations that have been “rising to power,”33 like the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy.34

There are also other lawyers who might take a more academic approach to the Supreme Court, and thus might helpfully be grouped within this “academic” audience. The emergence of a “Supreme Court bar,” for instance, has meant that lawyers who follow the big theories as well as the small details that the Justices care about might fare better in the cases they brief and argue to the Court.35 Many of the members of the Supreme Court bar are former Court clerks36 or otherwise clerked for federal judges who closely follow the main theories about the Court.

The academic audience is an important one not just because it listens, but also because of what it can do with what it hears. Academics play a crucial role in influencing whether what the Justices are saying is persuasive or not by defining the acceptable boundaries of constitutional arguments. Defining what constitutional arguments are “off the wall” or “on the wall” is important,37 and academics can play a crucial role in defining whether Justices’ comments are “off the wall” or “on the wall.” Academics can take not just to the law reviews but also to the halls of Congress or the opinion pages of newspapers to criticize or praise what the Justices are saying.

Academic audiences can also help the public comments by Justices be more motivating and therefore more mobilizing. Academics can draw attention to comments by the Justices by writing about what they are saying, thereby generating recognition and status for members of the Court. Consider, for instance, the significant quantity of legal scholarship devoted to originalism, conferring status on Justice Scalia as an important Justice because of his interest in originalism.38

If law professors are persuaded by what the Justices say, they can serve as a “support structure”39 for the Justices—defending them in academic and popular writing and in teaching the next generation of lawyers. Justices may also motivate those who are academically inclined but are not law professors to bring cases to help the Justices advance their constitutional agendas. If Justices persuade these lawyers, they might present in their brief or oral argument the precise arguments that the Justices themselves articulated in their extrajudicial communications.

B. The Other Audiences for Liberal Justices

Democratic Party politicians face a similar dilemma to that faced by liberal Justices: their supporters tend to be found among the most academically elite, but also the least academically elite.40 Consider, for instance, the last two Presidents elected from the Democratic Party: one was a Rhodes Scholar and Yale Law School graduate who served as a part-time law professor before entering political office. The other was the President of the Harvard Law Review and also a part-time law professor before his political career advanced. What Presidents William Jefferson Clinton and Barack Obama both have done so well is combine these elite academic backgrounds with the capacity to communicate with lay audiences. It is the magic potion for liberal politics.

The situation is no different for liberal Justices trying to cultivate all of their audiences. Large portions of their audiences—if not most of their audiences—are not academics. This means that these audiences want to hear different things from the Justices. Unlike academic audiences, they are less concerned with the complexity of the Justices’ extrajudicial communications, and more concerned with their accessibility and relevance.41 Unlike for academic audiences, exclusion and exclusivity are not as important as practical implications explained comprehensibly.

Communications with non-academic audiences will therefore tend to differ in location and content. Rather than taking place at universities, law schools, or elite bar associations, events will be at the kinds of places that are less exclusive—that are formally or functionally more open to the general public, or at least to a broader cross-section of individuals. In these settings, the content of the remarks by Justices will tend to differ as well. Speakers tend to self-consciously and subconsciously change their remarks to fit their audience,42 and so speaking to a less academic audience will produce less academic remarks. The combination of a more accessible location and more accessible content might also make for broader media coverage of these non-academic extrajudicial communications, thus multiplying the breadth and depth of the audience.

For liberal Justices, these non-academic audiences come in many forms. It is important to reach other parts of the “liberal legal network.”43 These other parts of the network include other legal elites, but legal elites without as much interest as academics in the big theory that dominates academic discussions. This includes organizations like the ACLU or the AFL-CIO. Other liberal elite audiences might be political elites, like Democratic members of Congress, who care about the Court, but usually do not care as much or as often about academic discussions.44 There are approximately one million lawyers in the United States,45 and most of them are supporters of the causes that liberal Justices support46 and could be motivated and persuaded to take up legal arms to support what these Justices are saying. The largest potential constituency for liberal Justices might be average members of the public, who are overwhelmingly supportive of liberal touchstones like Roe v. Wade47 and opposed to liberal villains like Citizens United.48

Using extrajudicial communications to speak effectively to these audiences can persuade and motivate them in important ways. If elite legal interest groups like the ACLU support what Justices state, they might be more inclined to host the Justices for lectures or publicize their messages to their stakeholders. If members of Congress are convinced by what Justices state, they might be more inclined to introduce supportive legislation, hold supportive hearings, or give supportive speeches.

As the scholarship about the public and the Court has demonstrated, the non-elite, average members of the public can also be helpful if motivated.They can convince their members of Congress or their President to nominate or support different judicial nominees, or even influence voting on constitutional issues by members of the political or judicial branches.Likewise, if this non-academic audience is more motivated, it can serve the interests of liberal Justices.If elite legal interest groups are motivated, for example, they can serve as a “support structure” finding favorable clients and cases to bring to the Court to further the Justices’ pet causes.If these groups—or members of Congress—are motivated, they can also use what the Justices state to raise money and mobilize voters.49

II. the academic’s justices

The past several liberal Justices have been mostly focused in their extrajudicial communications on academic audiences. This has meant that the public events they have received the most attention for have been at universities, particularly law schools, and at elite bar association gatherings. Their remarks in those settings—and their writings in other settings—have focused mostly on the technical, academic dimensions of the constitutional issues they address in their work on the Court. By focusing on academic audiences, other relevant and potentially helpful audiences have been neglected.

A. The Academic Nature of Recent Liberal Justices

The publicly affiliated liberal Justices of the past generation have had a significant voice and presence in the academic world of law. Justice John Paul Stevens, nominated by President Gerald Ford in 1975, became known as one of the liberal members of the Court.50 A former part-time law professor at the University of Chicago Law School, Justice Stevens was a frequent lecturer at bar association and law school events during his career.51 Right before and after his retirement, the content of these appearances became more provocative, because Justice Stevens addressed the technical errors of specific Court decisions52 or constitutional theories.53 Justice Stevens made many appearances to promote his book on the history of the Court,54 although these appearances were generally before bar associations and at law schools and not at events appealing to the general public.55 Justice Stevens also wrote several essays for the most academic of general publications, The New York Review of Books.56

After joining the decisive opinion in Planned Parenthood v. Casey57 upholding Roe v. Wade, Justice David Souter, who had been appointed by President George H.W. Bush in 1990, became known as a member of the liberal wing of the Court.58 Justice Souter rarely attended public events of any sort, academic or otherwise.59 When he did appear in public or produce content for the public, his engagement was of a more academic nature. He was still the author of at least four academic articles before retiring from the Court in 2009.60 After retiring, he delivered a “remarkable speech”61 at the Harvard University Commencement that received widespread attention for laying out a theory of constitutional interpretation. This speech was then printed in the Harvard Law Review.62

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was the next liberal Justice appointed to the Court, nominated in 1993, and her public profile, too, has been very academic. Before her nomination, Ginsburg was perhaps best known for her work litigating cases for the ACLU. She argued six cases before the Court and filed amicus briefs in many others,63 pushing new theories about how the Constitution should be interpreted to protect against gender discrimination.64 These innovations in theoretical understandings of the Constitution’s treatment of gender became a part of the narrative surrounding her nomination and early years on the Court.65 Ginsburg was a faculty member at different law schools for nineteen years, writing about the technical dimensions of civil procedure66 as well as the constitutional dimensions of gender.67 She eventually became the first female tenured faculty member at Columbia.68

Her public appearances while on the Court receiving the most attention have been at universities, law schools, and judicial conferences, and before bar associations or similar gatherings of lawyers.69 The arguments she has presented in these places mirror her public appearances while she was still a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit70: discussions about the role of gender in American constitutional doctrine71 and about general questions related to judicial behavior and the judicial role.72 During her time on the Court, Justice Ginsburg has either written or been interviewed for approximately ninety law review articles.

Justice Stephen Breyer, appointed to the Court in 1994, was a law professor for thirteen years before his appointment to the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit.73 Breyer’s interest in topics like administrative law led some to predict at the time of his nomination to the First Circuit that he would take an academic, technical approach to judging.74 During his time on the Court, Justice Breyer’s most notable public appearances have been prominent endowed lectures at universities, like the Tanner Lectures on Human Values at Harvard University,75 the Madison Lecture at New York University,76 or a series of lectures at Yale University.77

Within a year of his nomination, Justice Breyer authored a book on risk regulation.78 He is also the primary author of an administrative law casebook.79 His two more recent books80 were attempts to provide an alternative theory of constitutional interpretation to that provided by Justice Scalia and others.81 The two recent books were clearly attempts to appeal to a wider audience; his prior books were with Harvard University Press, while these two books were with more popular presses.

Justice Breyer’s attempt in these two books to transcend his prior status as an Academic’s Justice was met with only limited success—at best. The two books address relatively academic topics (e.g., originalism and textualism), and were only reviewed in more highbrow newspapers and magazines82 and in law reviews.83 Justice Breyer appeared on a few more mainstream media outlets (PBS NewsHour and Fox Sunday Morning), but beyond that, he previewed and discussed the book mostly through his university and law school lectures.

Elena Kagan, like Ginsburg and Breyer before her, had spent many years as a full-time academic—first as a law professor at the University of Chicago, then at Harvard, and then as the Dean at Harvard Law School. From the moment she first came to widespread public attention after her nomination, her academic background was part of the public narrative of her career. When she was nominated, the New York Times headline stated that President Obama had nominated “Kagan, Scholar But Not Judge, for Court Seat.”84 President Obama mentioned her skills as a professor and dean when introducing her to the media and the public at the White House.85 In her three years on the Court, Kagan has made notable appearances at Harvard Law School to speak and to teach a class,86 at law school moot court competitions,87 and at the Aspen Institute to discuss constitutional theory.88

B. The Limitations of Being an Academic’s Justice

The academic audience, as Part I highlighted, is a crucial audience for liberal Justices, and thus it is important that recent liberal Justices have been appearing at academic locations and offering academic content. The academic audience might be frustrated with these Justices and desire a more “powerful” liberal voice,89 but these Justices are at least speaking their language. Because other audiences have gone relatively ignored, it has meant a less compelling message about what liberal Justices value in the Constitution for other audiences.

If these other audiences are to be reached, then the location and content of extrajudicial communications by liberal Justices must be aligned with what these audiences can understand and appreciate. There must be what social movement scholars often call “frame alignment.”90 For audiences not persuaded by academic ideas, a non-academic message will be more compelling.

Consider, for instance, the standard that President Obama set for his nominee to the Court before naming Sotomayor: “I view that quality of empathy, of understanding and identifying with people’s hopes and struggles,” he said, “as an essential ingredient for arriving at just decisions and outcomes.”91 Delivered with millions of Americans watching—and millions more to read about it in the weeks and months to come—President Obama’s call for judging with “empathy” seemed more comprehensible for non-academics than Justice Breyer’s “democratic pragmatism” or Justice Souter’s “fair reading of the Constitution.” Large majorities of Americans expressed their approval for the President’s “empathy” standard92 (even if Justices Sotomayor and Kagan abandoned it during their hearings).93 No such majorities have endorsed any other message that liberals have produced about what judging means.94

Crisp and memorable phrases are more persuasive to broader public audiences,95 and this is probably just as true in discussions about the Constitution. (One thinks of phrases like “[s]eparate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”96) Justices presenting remarks in academic settings or discussing academic topics are less likely to produce these talking points. Instead, remarks in these settings come off as more “lengthy, detailed and dense.”97

The natural comparison is with conservative Justices, and the crisp phrases they have utilized to persuade. As Senator Al Franken said of conservatives compared to liberals: “[T]heir bumper sticker, . . . it’s one word: No. . . . Our bumper sticker has—it’s just way too many words. And it says, ‘Continued on next bumper sticker.’”98 Think of the phrases that have come from the mouths of conservatives outside of judicial opinions: Judging is like being an umpire.99 One can be an originalist without being a nut.100

For audiences not generally motivated by academic ideas, the academic location and content of the “Academic’s Justice” are hardly compelling. Part of evaluating the potency of a message for an audience is examining the resonance or salience of the message, or “how essential the beliefs, values, and ideas associated with group messages are to the lives of the targets of mobilization.”101 The deeper and more intensely felt the beliefs that the messages are targeting, the more effective they will be as tools of mobilization and coordination.102

Messages about the Constitution framed in an academic fashion will not motivate the core selves and professional identities of non-academic audiences. For instance, the democratic pragmatism espoused by Justice Breyer is “context-specific, non-categorical, [and] expertise-driven.”103 Context-specific messages do not mobilize local members of the ACLU or NAACP to give millions of dollars or organize meetings or marches. If Justice Breyer’s expertise-driven vision of the Constitution is explained instead as a means of permitting minority students to have a chance at a decent education in the school districts in Parents Involved,104 the ACLU or NAACP’s local members might find themselves motivated. Justice Souter’s Harvard graduation speech about the importance of a “fair reading model”105 of the Constitution may not stimulate the core beliefs of civil rights organizations, members of Congress, or average Americans. If the alternative to that model is taking away the power of the elected branches of government to do their jobs, framing it in those terms might stimulate the core beliefs of members of Congress or the voters that elected them, and motivate them to take action.

One reason that Justices on the left appeal less often to non-academic audiences is a perceived comparative disadvantage: They recognize the “particular knack for attracting and holding the attention of a nonlegal audience”106 that some conservative Justices like Justice Scalia have.107Justice Scalia makes “every effort to insure his politically volatile statements are media-friendly,”108 and often speaks as if he is “explaining his constitutional views to laypersons.”109 Even his more academic book, A Matter of Interpretation, makes a point of saying that it “is addressed not just to lawyers but to . . . all thoughtful Americans,”110 and is written in more comprehensible language than either of Justice Breyer’s books.111 Chief Justice John Roberts used his confirmation hearing to introduce the easily intelligible and compelling analogy of judges as umpires,112 a phrase that on its own stimulated massive discussion in many quarters.113

This comprehensibility means that conservative Justices are able to motivate using a “rare mix of legal analysis, emotional pique, and ideological fervor.”114 Justice Scalia speaks of originalism with the passion of someone who believes not only that originalism is right, but that it will “save us all.”115He motivates by using “doses of mockery, humor, and insult” as well as “expressions of alarm.”116 Justices Scalia and Thomas both use originalism “as [a] conscious tool[] to excite the anger, fears, and resentments of conservative constituencies, and thus to fan the fires of political mobilization.”117

III. the people’s justice?

In her first five years on the Court, Justice Sotomayor’s extrajudicial communications have been quite different than those of the recent liberal Justices. At times, the location and content of her communications have been academic. More prominent—and more notable, different, and promising for liberals—has been her constant capacity to communicate with non-academic audiences, to relate herself and the Constitution to lay audiences. The location and content of her extrajudicial appearances is what makes a more diverse range of audiences “like[] her, love[] her [and] regard[] her as one of the people.”118

A. The Sotomayor Difference

From time to time, there have been exceptions to the academic nature of the extrajudicial appearances by liberal Justices, particularly in the past few years.119 Justice Stevens generally avoided extrajudicial appearances outside of law schools and bar associations, but in more recent years has appeared on 60 Minutes.120 Justice Ginsburg sat for several interviews with popular newspapers and television programs in the past few years.121 Justice Breyer promoted his books on television programs like the Charlie Rose Show, Fox News Sunday, and PBS NewsHour.122 Justice Kagan, while appearing at more academic locations and talking about more academic topics, has tried to simplify the language she uses in her appearances—and in her opinions. This has led to many proclaiming her the future key liberal communicator on the Court.123

Justice Sotomayor’s five years on the Court, though, have featured a more frequent pattern of extrajudicial communications clearly outside of the normal academic circles inhabited by liberal Justices. Justice Sotomayor has appeared at her fair share of elite law schools.124 At these appearances, though, the content of her remarks has been partially academic, but also partially personal. At her public interview at Northwestern University Law School, for instance, Justice Sotomayor remarked on how female judges are different by using anecdotes from her own confirmation process. She illustrated these remarks with a particularly vivid personal anecdote: She told a friend that the questions asked of her were so personal that she felt others “already know the color of my underwear.”125 When asked about how she approaches deciding cases, she indicated that having some “passion” for the cases and the parties involved in these cases is important.126 She did not discuss originalism or pragmatism in any great detail—but nor did she avoid touching on what judges do and how they should do it. She expressed her convictions in a more personal and accessible fashion, one less characterized by technical, inaccessible content.

Contrast these comments by Sotomayor with the other liberal Justices’ appearances at elite law schools. Justice Breyer’s Yale lectures—the basis of his latest book—were almost entirely about different theories of constitutional interpretation.127 Justice Ginsburg’s Yale lectures this past year were about the role that gender should play in constitutional interpretation, but only occasionally mentioned the personal difficulties that Justice Ginsburg faced as a female lawyer earlier in her career.128 Justice Kagan’s interview with Dean Martha Minow at Harvard Law School was a wide-ranging reflection on her career on and before the Court.129

Justice Sotomayor has received substantial amounts of media attention for her extrajudicial appearances at events that are not geared towards academics, and instead are watched by a cross-section of millions of Americans. Sotomayor has talked with the women of The View (who called her “Sonia”), spoken to the hosts of The Today Show, and has been interviewed by Katie Couric, Oprah Winfrey, Jon Stewart, and Stephen Colbert.130 She has been featured in the more middle- or upper-brow strata of liberal media: 60 Minutes, National Public Radio, CNN, and C-SPAN.131 She made two appearances on a program that appeals to everyone: Sesame Street.132

A similar pattern of appearing in accessible and non-academic locations has characterized her extrajudicial communications outside of the mass media. Immediately after her Senate confirmation, she made sure to be available in Manhattan to greet “neighbors who lined the sidewalks.”133 She threw out the first pitch at a New York Yankees game134 and later greeted the Yankees in her chambers with the World Series trophy.135 She regularly appears at high schools and other educational institutions for children,136 and at universities beyond just the very elite schools.137 She appears at bookstores across the country.138 She regularly appears before groups of lawyers—particularly public interest groups—that are not the most elite groups of lawyers.139

As with her appearances at elite law schools, these appearances can sometimes be purely personal, sometimes partly about the Constitution, and sometimes a combination of the two. During her 60 Minutes interview, for instance, she spoke of the importance of affirmative action by highlighting that it “changed the course of my life.”140

A big part of Justice Sotomayor’s appearances at these other events is her unprecedented, headline-grabbing autobiography, published less than four years after her elevation to the Court.This book was the number one book on the New York Times best-seller list for several months.141 This book was almost the opposite of an appearance at an elite academic institution—open to millions of Americans who purchased it from bookstores or Amazon.

Like most of her extrajudicial communications, the book is targeted at a wider audience. Without mentioning specific academic phrases or debates, Sotomayor still does manage to make points that implicate some constitutional debates. Sotomayor argues that even minorities who feel the legal system is against them, as she has at different points, should try to work within the system.142

B. The Potential of Sotomayor as the People’s Justice

1. Potential Contributions

One difference that Justice Sotomayor could make is not to alter what liberal Justices are saying about the Constitution, but to attract more people to listen to what she—and the other liberal Justices—are already saying. She could become the People’s Justice by making the people pay more attention to existing debates about the Constitution and existing liberal arguments. Justice Sotomayor seemed to make this point in her interview with Jodi Kantor of the New York Times,143 and there are good reasons to think she might be right.

Academic locations and academic content generally do not receive widespread attention,144 but Sotomayor’s appearances have been heavily covered. We know, for instance, that during high-salience moments for the Supreme Court, the American public tends to pay more attention to the work of the Court.145 One technique for heightening issue salience is making the issue more personal and immediate to the general public.146 Putting a face on an issue can give it higher salience.147

For many reasons—but surely in part because of her public appearances—Sotomayor is the third-most-known Justice on the Court.148 Supreme Court reporters for major newspapers cover her, but so do culture reporters, entertainment reporters, and general news reporters, one of whom called Sotomayor “the nation’s most high-profile Hispanic figure.”149 For non-academic audiences to be persuaded by liberal Justices, they must know who they are and what they are saying. Sotomayor’s pervasive fame could popularize the liberal constitutional product, and by popularizing the product it could persuade new audiences.

There is another difference embedded in Sotomayor’s appeals to other audiences that could make a difference without changing the message of liberal Justices: Sotomayor could make the message of liberal Justices more appealing by affiliating it with an appealing messenger. How messages are received has to do with how appealing the messenger appears to the audience.150 The academic location and academic content of the extrajudicial communications by the other Justices might be more or less compelling, but it does not operate at the emotive, personal level that creates affection from the audience.151

By contrast, Sotomayor has been appealing to a wide variety of audiences in part because of where she has made her public appearances. Appearances that are closer to the social and physical locations that feel like home to audiences—that is, locations that are most socially and physically proximate to these audiences—can make a person more appealing.152 For instance, when Sotomayor visited the law school at the University of California, Berkeley, she judged a moot court competition and met with faculty and students there, appearing on the home turf of the academic audiences for liberal Justices. That same day, though, she went to an elementary school and met with local students, teachers, and parents, meeting them on their—quite different—home turf.

Her presence at the law school might have made her, and therefore her message, more appealing to academics. Her presence at the elementary school might have made her, and therefore her message, more appealing to her other audiences that day. The decision to appear in the home location of diverse audiences can make Sotomayor appealing and thereby persuade and motivate her audiences in a way purely theoretical messages cannot.

Sotomayor has also been appealing to a wide variety of audiences because of what she says during her appearances. One way that speakers relate to audiences is by saying to them, “I am one of you.”153 Because Sotomayor makes her communications personal—disclosing her own life story and her own vulnerabilities—she seems like an average member of the public. Consider, for instance, her book, in which Sotomayor says that she has “ventured to write more intimately about my personal life than is customary for a member of the Supreme Court.”154 She describes herself as an “ordinary person”155 who knows she will be “judged as a human being.”156 She “disclose[s] every fear [she’d] ever had.”157 Sotomayor writes that she has “spent [her] whole life learning how to do things that were hard for [her.]”158

Sotomayor makes similar comments during her public appearances. In an appearance at the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, Sotomayor “open[ed] up about her diabetes” with “heartfelt remarks.”159 Her sometimes physical embrace of audience members accentuates this sense that Sotomayor can relate to these audiences of average people. She embraced Tabbie Major, age seven, at one public appearance when their conversation turned to Nancy Drew mysteries.160

A common feature of her public appearances, then, is how much her audience responds positively to her in a personal fashion. One story summarizing the reaction to all of her public appearances said that, because of Sotomayor, “the Supreme Court appears to have a warm and motherly Oprah type” because Sotomayor has “off-the-charts emotional intelligence.”161 The personal bonding that transpires between Sotomayor and her audiences makes her more appealing to a wider range of audiences. It might be that academic audiences prefer the dry, the complex, and the technical.162 It might be that personal bonding therefore turns academic audiences off from what Sotomayor says to her audiences, and makes them less likely to be persuaded by the substance of her remarks.

At the same time, though, the more practical, comprehensible, and personal nature of her comments might make non-academic audiences appreciate her more, appreciation that might help to persuade them. This personal appreciation is a key component of persuasion for these less technocratic audiences.163 This personal appreciation is also a key component of motivation for less technocratic audiences—who may be motivated as much by the person behind an idea as by the idea itself.164

Finally, Sotomayor could make a difference in her capacity as the People’s Justice if inhabiting that role transforms the content of liberal constitutional law. There is no reason, so far at least, to believe she will transform that content through explicitly academic or theoretical interventions. Unlike Justice Scalia’s originalism, Justice Breyer’s pragmatism, or even Justice Souter’s fair reading model, there is little in what she states in her extrajudicial remarks that indicates a brave new theory of the Court or the Constitution.

What could make the liberal message different is not that it is materially different, but that it is delivered differently. The same message in a different package might become a different message. The same speech or book in the hands of the Academic’s Justice could read differently than it would in the hands of the People’s Justice. Messages that are particularly easy for non-academic audiences to understand and appreciate could be particularly compelling. Lani Guinier, for instance, has argued that oral dissents are easier to understand and less technical, and therefore could be effective tools to communicate with the public.165

The non-academic content of Sotomayor’s remarks might therefore be transforming the liberal message by popularizing it. Sotomayor’s extrajudicial communications feature “evocative [and] plain-spoken prose.”166 Rather than talking about a “fair reading model”167 or the limited technical capacity of the judiciary to assess the policy outcomes of affirmative action programs,168 for example, she highlights how affirmative action uplifted her life and how she used it for the best.169

This kind of extrajudicial communication is also more likely to mobilize non-academic audiences. For those concerned more about particular policies or particular outcomes than the theories or principles behind them, it can be frustrating when Justices only talk about underlying theories or principles. Some professors have assigned her book to undergraduate students as a way to motivate conversations about the Constitution.170 The NAACP can better mobilize its members to contribute by pointing to Sotomayor’s defense of affirmative action, rather than to the limited judicial capacity to evaluate the policy merits of affirmative action.

2. Reactions to the People’s Justice

In her first five years on the Court, Sotomayor has attracted considerable attention. The commentary on her tenure thus far—by academics and by journalists and public intellectuals—has not responded to her promise as a new and promising voice for liberal constitutional law. The commentary has focused on her failure to articulate liberal alternatives to conservative constitutional law. There is reason to believe this commentary may be right.There is also reason to believe this commentary might reflect what has happened in liberal circles as both a cause and an effect of the number of “Academic’s Justices”—namely, a failure to appreciate how liberal constitutional thought can be furthered even without being articulated in an academic fashion. Whether sympathetic or unsympathetic responses to this commentary prove to be more accurate will only be clear decades from now.

Sotomayor’s extrajudicial appearances are not as obviously directed towards supporting a liberal vision of constitutional law as the extrajudicial appearances of other liberal Justices. She usually talks about “her own story.171She indicates that she will not “address any issue before the court.”172 She usually takes that to preclude discussion not only of specific cases, but also of the larger issues implicated by those cases. There are no remarks about originalism, or judicial restraint, in academic or in non-academic language. By some measures, then, Sotomayor is notable for how little she talks about these issues in extrajudicial appearances.173

Nonetheless, there are discussions of constitutional law—and discussions sympathetic to liberals—in Sotomayor’s extrajudicial appearances. Justice Sotomayor does not mention the Warren Court’s “‘strict’ in theory, fatal in fact”174 approach when discussing affirmative action, for instance, but did praise how affirmative action affected her personally on 60 Minutes.175 She did not mention the flawed doctrinal apparatus of Chief Justice Roberts’s opinion in Parents Involved, but she did state that his opinion reflected a “too simple” view of racial justice.176 During a recent NPR interview, Sotomayor referenced her disagreement with Justice Clarence Thomas (by name) about affirmative action.177

Justice Sotomayor does not talk about living constitutionalism, but she does indicate the importance of considering realities on the ground.178 She did not criticize Citizens United for misunderstanding the history of the First Amendment, but she did say at Fordham that it is important to ensure popular participation in the legal system.179 In her appearance at George Washington University, echoing her “Wise Latina” remarks, she highlighted the importance of diversity on the bench, and the importance of having defense or civil rights lawyers deciding cases too.180

Rather than the signs of a Justice not speaking to substance, these are more indicative of a Justice speaking substance, but to a wider audience. One might look for discussions of constitutional law not only in the specific content of Sotomayor’s extrajudicial appearances, but also in the subtle message being conveyed. She references many of the cultural priors that appeal to liberals, even if she does not specify the programmatic content that might follow from these priors. For instance, while conservatives talk about color-blindness, Sotomayor highlights the discrimination she faced for being typecast as the emotional Latina181 and how it made her have to work harder to get to where she is.182

Commentators might have missed these substantive dimensions to Sotomayor’s extrajudicial appearances for many reasons. Her discussions are not as open and obvious about substance as other appearances by liberal Justices. She does not use constitutional buzzwords (e.g., “living constitutionalism” or “originalism”). She does not appear at ideologically affiliated gatherings like Federalist Society or ACS conferences.

Commentators might also miss how she talks about constitutional law because of their constant focus on what Justices can contribute to “the cause of progressive thought.”183 The primary metric used to evaluate the contribution of a Justice to public discussion about constitutional law by academics and commentators has been a more academic metric.184 If she has no distinctive approach to “liberal thought,”185 then her value in communicating to the public is understood to be limited or zero. The contrast, so far, is with Justice Kagan, who has been praised for writing opinions that reflect and reinforce deep liberal theories, but also feature “pithy one-liners” that “brush away the legalistic smokescreens of justices on the opposing side.”186 The academic audience sees Kagan as the liberal counterweight, according to these scholars, to the “intelligence”187 of Justice Scalia.

As this Essay has highlighted, though, there are more audiences for liberal Justices than just academics, and these audiences might actually respond more favorably to Sotomayor’s way of communicating substance. And readable judicial opinions will not reach as many individuals as readable opinions plus a Justice appearing on Oprah and The Today Show.

Some have argued not just that Sotomayor contributes nothing to the “cause of progressive thought,” but that her approach of communicating to wider audiences is “undignified.”188 One scholar, for instance, criticized as “disrespectful” Justice Sotomayor’s decision to push back the swearing in of Vice President Biden so she could attend her signing at Barnes & Noble.189 Whether these arguments are right about what it means to act judicially is a larger question, beyond the scope of this short Essay.

Two quick comments are in order, though. Some research suggests that exposure to the “symbols” of judging leads lay observers to support judicial review even more.190 The capacity of lay observers to notice the difference between appearing at an elementary school and at a law school might not implicate concerns about acting unlike a judge. More to the point, there is also evidence suggesting that lay observers do not necessarily have the image of judges as detached, formalist, and unavailable.191 Bracketing the empirical effects of Sotomayor’s extrajudicial appearances for one moment suggests a deeper truth: how strongly deviations from the detached, formal, unavailable judge are policed. The “persistent cultural script of judicial dispassion” is alive and well.192


At the end of her fifth calendar year on the Supreme Court, Justice Sotomayor was not in her chambers, or at home. She was in Times Square in New York City, alongside Miley Cyrus, to lead the countdown to midnight and push the button to drop the ceremonial ball in Times Square. She became the first Justice ever to do this.193 This Essay highlights how these sorts of appearances are merely visible instances of a pervasive, and pervasively different, approach that Sotomayor has taken during her years on the Court.

Right now, though, to say that this strategy will actually change how Americans perceive liberal Justices is merely “aspirational.”194 With time, and with more examination, a symposium at the end of Justice Sotomayor’s career might have the evidence to make a more definitive assessment. For now, though, we can simply assert that Sotomayor’s approach has been different, and there are many reasons to believe it could change how the liberal Justices on the Court communicate with the public. If this approach resonates, it could be that someday there will not just be a People’s Justice at One First Street, NE in Washington, but an entire People’s Court.

David Fontana is an Associate Professor of Law at George Washington University Law School. He thanks Naomi Cahn, Josh Chafetz, Caroline Frederickson, Tom Ginsburg, Tara Grove, Chip Lupu, Jon Michaels, Alan Morrison, David Pozen, Cristina Rodríguez, David Schleicher, Naomi Schoenbaum, Peter Smith, and Adam Winkler; Jessica Arco and Geoffrey Wright for their wonderful research assistance; and the editors of the Yale Law Journal for their kind invitation to participate in this symposium exploring Justice Sotomayor’s five years on the Supreme Court.

Preferred citation: David Fontana, The People’s Justice?, 123 Yale L.J. F. 447 (2014),