WASHINGTON — Two Supreme Court justices, one liberal and one conservative, insisted in a joint interview released Thursday that relations between the justices remain warm and respectful.
“Fundamentally, I understand that they are good people,” Judge Sonia Sotomayor, who was appointed by President Barack Obama, said of her colleagues.
Judge Amy Coney Barrett, who was appointed by President Donald J. Trump, likened the court to an arranged marriage. “We have a lifetime mandate, so we get along,” she said. “You’re not going to sever relationships with the people you’re going to spend your career with.”
At the time the two justices spoke, they also knew that the court, in a series of 6-3 decisions divided along ideological lines, would expand gun rights, limit the ability of the Protection Agency to the environment to combat climate change and expand the role of religion in public life.
“They knew more than we knew at the time,” Janet Tran, an institute official who helped organize the conversation, said in an interview this week.
The justices, seated side by side in the Supreme Court, were interviewed virtually by Yale law professor Akhil Reed Amar. The interview took place on the day of the judges’ first scheduled private conference after the leaked draft notice was published.
Professor Amar did not ask about the leak or ongoing cases, and most of the discussion focused on various aspects of education, including civics. But the judges were careful on several occasions to say that relations between the judges were friendly.
“One of the wonders of being on the Supreme Court is knowing that each of my colleagues is equally passionate about the Constitution, our system of government and doing things the way I am,” Justice Sotomayor said. “We may disagree on how to get there, and we often do, but that doesn’t mean I look at them and say you’re bad people.”
During the term that ended in June, Justices Sotomayor and Barrett voted together 29% of the time in split cases argued before a nine-member tribunal.
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Disagreements aside, Judge Barrett said “one of the important things about the court is that it is a collegiate institution.”
“I have genuine affection for all of my colleagues,” she added.
Judge Clarence Thomas, speaking at a conference in Dallas the day after the conversation with his two colleagues was recorded, gave a less optimistic account of the relationship in court, equating the flight with infidelity and claiming that it had led to a loss of confidence.
Justices Sotomayor and Barrett have made other public appearances recently, usually in academic settings or before audiences sympathetic to their jurisprudential views.
In June, for example, Justice Sotomayor spoke at the annual convention of the American Constitution Society, a liberal group. She said then that she hoped to “regain public confidence that we – as a court, as an institution – have not gone astray”.
Last year, Judge Barrett told a Kentucky audience that “my goal today is to convince you that this court is not made up of a bunch of partisan hacks.”
She spoke at the McConnell Center at the University of Louisville, after an introduction by Sen. Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and Minority Leader, who helped found the center and helped secure its hasty confirmation.
On the bench and in her dissents, Judge Sotomayor sometimes adopts a sharper tone. When the abortion case was argued in December, she said she worried what reversing Roe’s decision would do in court.
“Will this institution survive the stench it creates in the public perception that the Constitution and its reading are just political acts? she asked.
In a dissent in June, she criticized what she called “a restless, newly constituted tribunal” ready to reconsider even recent precedent.
In another video posted Thursday, Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr., the author of the majority opinion in last month’s abortion decision, addressed what he said were serious threats to religious freedom in a keynote address in Rome, at a dinner for the University of Notre Dame Religious Freedom Initiative.
“We cannot lightly assume that the religious freedom enjoyed today in the United States, Europe and many other places will endure forever,” he said last week. “Religious freedom is fragile, and religious intolerance and persecution have been recurring features of human history.”
In an interview this week, Yale Professor Amar said he was struck by the warmth of the two judges when he spoke to them in May. “My feeling is that these are two people who don’t have bad blood,” he said.
Judge Barrett said court traditions – including the handshake before arguments, frequent lunches during which talking about business is forbidden and birthday celebrations – promote good relations.
“We come together,” she said. “We sing ‘Happy Birthday.’ We toast and, you know, we recognize ourselves as people marking the special celebrations of life.
Judge Sotomayor said some of the court’s activities should remain shrouded in secrecy.
“Nobody wants a recording of our singing,” she said.