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‘We Don’t Agree That Often’: Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Neil Gorsuch Team Up for a Lesson on Civics


Supreme Court Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Neil Gorsuch appeared together during a Zoom presentation in which they both argued that civility in politics is a national security issue.

Hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) last month, the discussion was only made public on Wednesday.

Billed as a “fireside chat,” co-host Suzanne Spaulding noted the current “tumultuous time” in U.S. history by citing widespread social isolation due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the economically dire straits of many Americans and the “high levels of discord” present in politics and communities across the country. Spaulding asked Sotomayor why she thought civics were particularly important “at this moment.”

“This is the scariest of times, and the most exciting of times,” Sotomayor said in the video conversation last month.

“I see the civil discourse as having many benefits,” the farthest left justice continued. “It’s getting people engaged who otherwise haven’t been. We had one of highest turnouts in voting the last election. Yet, at the same time, we see some of the cracks in our system. We have a great deal of partisan, very heated debate going on. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But it can turn into an awful thing–into something that destroys the fabric of our community–if we don’t learn how to talk to each other; how to discuss things with each other; and how to change things in a positive, rather than in a negative way.”

“And that’s what civic participation is about,” Sotomayor went on. “That’s what civic education is about.”

Gorsuch, an arch-textualist in the mold of Supreme Court legend Antonin Scalia, then answered the same question.

“We share a common conviction,” Gorsuch began.

“We don’t agree that often on things,” Sotomayor cut in–prompting a bit of probably unscripted but on script laughter and joking between the two justices who often find themselves in polar opposition but who sometimes find themselves agreeing in hot-button cases concerning civil rights and the rights of criminal defendants.

“How can a democracy function if we can’t talk to one another?” Gorsuch asked rhetorically. “And if we can’t disagree, kindly, with respect for one another’s differences and different points of view?”

“I think our court is a pretty good example of how democracy’s supposed to work,” the typically right-wing justice continued. “You have people from all across the country with radically different life experiences–and different points of view–but all of whom share of love for this country and a love for our Constitution. And, more than that, really love one another, and respect one another and listen to one another.”

Gorsuch noted America is the oldest surviving republic in world history and went on to cite violent fissures among the nation’s founders–even invoking the liberal favorite broadway play Hamilton–to make the point that civics are an “enduring” question because occasionally disagreement has gotten “out of hand.”

Then the panel got down to specifics about civics education.

“That’s a bit scary,” Sotomayor said when recounting statistics that only one-in-five Americans are capable of naming a right protected by the First Amendment.

“Similarly we have studies that show that there is a percentage–about a quarter of our young population–who don’t believe democracy is a good thing,” she continued. “Those are statistics that should raise concern.”

Sotomayor went on to stress that civics education, in her opinion, was “critical for our survival.”

“Yeah,” Gorsuch agreed when it was his turn. “I don’t know how you want to change things, or effect change, if you don’t know how the system works.”

[image via screengrab/CSIS/YouTube]

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