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Sarah Jane Weaver: The lesson of understanding from a Supreme Court justice and the mother of the defendant she sentenced


Sonia Sotomayor, left, President Obama's choice to replace retiring Justice David Souter, takes the oath from Chief Justice John Roberts to become the Supreme Court's first Hispanic justice and only the third woman in the court's 220-year history, in Washington, Saturday, Aug. 8, 2009. She is joined by her brother, Juan Luis Sotomayor, and her mother Celina Sotomayor. Sotomayor, 55, has been a federal judge for 17 years. The Senate confirmed Sotomayor's nomination Thursday by a 68-31 vote.

J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press

I recently listened to a November 2018 conversation between United States Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and David M. Rubenstein. It was sent to me by a friend.

During the annual David M. Rubenstein Lecture, sponsored by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Rubenstein asked Justice Sotomayor — who was confirmed to the Supreme Court on Aug. 6, 2009 — about the Bible she used for her swearing-in ceremony.

Sotomayor spoke of a courtroom interaction that had taken place years earlier, when she was a trial judge.

She recalled sentencing a young member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a process that allowed her to learn a little about the faith. During the sentencing, she mentioned “how impressed she was with many of the tenets and values” of the religion.

In retrospect, Sotomayor said she sentenced the defendant “more harshly” than she might have a few years later. “It was a difficult case for me,” she explained to Rubenstein. (The experience is at 46:50 in the hourlong conversation shared on YouTube.)

After the sentence was handed down and she had moved to her next cases, she received a package in the mail from the defendant’s mother.   

Because the package was unsolicited, it was examined and X-rayed. When the box was finally opened, it contained what Sotomayor referred to as “a Mormon Bible.”

The defendant’s mother had sent it with a note “explaining that I had spoken about their religion and that she thought I should learn more about it. So she had sent me a Bible.”

Bound by a code of conduct, Sotomayor cannot accept gifts, “certainly not from a defendant’s mother.” She thought “about what she could do because sending it back seemed like the wrong thing to do.”

Ultimately, she learned the value of the Bible from the U.S. Library of Congress, and sent the gift-giver a money order. She thanked the mother for the Bible and explained, “I couldn’t accept the book as a gift, but that I could pay for the book.”

Then she told Rubenstien: “That is the book I used for my swearing in.”

The exchange between the judge and the mother certainly is an example of Sotomayor’s quest for understanding, her laudable commitment to the ethics that govern her profession and her goodness.

It also communicates much about the defendant’s mother, who reached out to a judge after a difficult case. Her sincere gesture rippled through the years, climaxing as Sotomayor took her place as the 111th Supreme Court justice in U.S. history — and the third woman and the first Hispanic to serve on the court.

Sotomayor goes on in the interview to talk about the importance of listening and understanding.

The mother modeled both. She didn’t send a scathing letter to the judge, criticizing her opinion, approach or application of the law. She showed no anger, contempt or rage. Instead she sought common ground.

And in a most profound gesture, the mother, whose son was just sentenced, perhaps “harshly,” offered a treasured truth.

As racial tensions spread like wildfire across the United States in June 2020, President Russell M. Nelson said Church leaders “abhor the reality that some would deny others respect.”

President Nelson wrote that during the Savior’s earthly mission, “He constantly ministered to those who were excluded, marginalized, judged, overlooked, abused and discounted. As His followers, can we do anything less? The answer is no! We believe in freedom, kindness and fairness for all of God’s children!

“Let us be clear. We are brothers and sisters, each of us the child of a loving Father in Heaven. His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, invites all to come unto Him.”

President Nelson asked all of us to foster fundamental respect for the human dignity of every human soul.

“We need to work tirelessly to build bridges of understanding rather than creating walls of segregation. I plead with us to work together for peace, for mutual respect and for an outpouring of love for all of God’s children.”

We see the smallest example of this as the paths of a judge and a mother crossed in a courtroom.

I do not know if Sotomayor and the defendant’s mother shared political ideologies. I suspect they did not.

I do not know how the mother felt about her son’s sentence. I have to wonder if she felt the judge had found the long-sought balance between justice and mercy.

And I do not know if the paths of these women ever crossed again.

But what I do know is beautiful — and contains a sweet lesson in a world needing more bridges than walls. A judge sought understanding and a mother responded with grace. Years after their brief interaction, the judge laid her hand on the mother’s Bible and swore an oath to God as she took her place on the United States’ highest court.

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