Tuesday, February 19, 2013

"Here Come Da Judge"

When I heard it was happening, I immediately signed up.

Associate Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor would be appearing locally (in an onstage interview with Eva Longoria.)  She was flacking her new memoir, but this is America.  Who isn’t? 

An encounter with a Supreme Court Justice, a current member of the august body that returned Dred Scott to slavery and later integrated the schools.  You have to go, don’t you?  I mean, I do.  Not just to hear her speak, but – because it is inevitably always about me – to ask her a question.

I knew there’d be questions.  I’m an avid viewer of C-SPAN 2’s “Non-Fiction Weekends”, where authors speak about their books, and at the end, interested attendees line up behind stand-up microphones, each of them invited to ask one short, direct question without making any speeches. 

This time, it would be me.  I knew the rules, and was determined to participate.

If my earlier writings had not made it clear, you can chalk that up to ineptitude over intention.  The concept, crystal clear in my head at least, is the following:  The major institutions in this country – law, government, the economy to name three big ones – do not work.  But we pretend they do, because it is deemed superior to believe something untrue that gives us a reliable sense of order than to believe something that is true but would cause us to run screamingly into our houses, close the curtains and pull the blankets over our heads.

Conclusion:  We believe things work because it feels better.  Not because they actually do.

Case In Point:  The Supreme Court.

The Year 2000:  There are five Republican appointees and four Democratic appointees.  The Court’s decision will determine the outcome of the presidential election.  The presidency is handed to the Republican nominee.  The vote:  Five to four.  Precisely along party lines.

“The system works.”


The outcome of a case of that nature, and other nationally important decisions – such as Citizens United which allowed corporations to spend as much money on political campaigns as they wanted, which was also decided along party lines – was at the core of my question for Associate Justice Sotomayor, the question being this:

“What does it feel like to go into a conference {where they vote} knowing that everybody’s mind is already made up?”

You see what I’m driving at there?  “Madame Justice, the revered institution on which you serve does not really work.  You’re just pretending it does.” 

“The Supreme Court”, he adds glibly, “is just show business, with robes.”

I ran my question by Dr. M who would be attending the event with me, and to my amazement, surprise and relief, she did not think it was stupid.  Or embarrassing.  Or disrespectful.  Or rude.  Glory be!  She seemed to actually approve! 

Dr. M’s unexpected enthusiasm triggered the arrival of another question:

“Historically, how did the Supreme Court evolve from the least powerful of the three branches of government to, arguably, the most powerful?  (Full Disclosure:  This was a rewrite of the original version of the question, which was, ”What are the ‘checks and balances’ on the Supreme Court?”, which is rhetorically “know-it-all” because there aren’t any.  And my second shot at it was, “How did the Supreme Court evolve from the least powerful branch of government to being able to elect a president all by itself?”, which, though it would likely have garnered applause from the reliably liberal-leaning audience in attendance, seemed, to me, to be too self-congratulatorily smartass.)

Now that I had two questions to fuel my temporary reprieve from obscurity – which, even though they were short and direct were still two questions – it occurred to me to overcome that transgression of the rules by being winningly endearing and folksy.  I instantly restructured my impending “Moment in the Sun.”

“I have two questions,” I would begin, take a brief, self-effacing pause and then say…”because I don’t run into you that often…” 

Having charmed them into submission, I would then unsheathe my two dynamite questions and score big-time, at least in my future recollection. 

You see how prepared I was?  I was determined to score big-time.  At least in my own future recollection.

All right, to draw this out no longer than is strictly necessary, we arrive at the venue twenty minutes early.  As we are about to enter the “orchestra” area of the theater, we are informed that it is already fully occupied, and we are directed to the balcony.  We wind up sitting half a dozen rows from the ceiling, among the highest seats in the balcony…

A balcony glaringly featuring no stand-up microphones whatsoever. 

(There were two of them in the “orchestra.”)       

It turns out it was okay.  Sonia Sotomayor, an unstoppable dynamo who had doggedly bootstrapped her way to the top, was there to talk, neither about the history of the Court, nor its transparent politicization, but to tell her story and deliver the encouraging self-help mantra:  “If I can do it, so can you.”

(I should have known where we were headed from the title of her memoir:  My Beloved World.)

My inquiries, it became clear, would have been jarringly out of place.  From her irrepressible enthusiasm and her genuine amazement at her supremely improbable rise to power, my skeptical recriminations would have made me feel the way I once described another misplaced sourpuss: 

Like a spider on a birthday cake.

We sat through two questions of Q & A, and then left. 

Sonia Sotomayor is one humble, smart, enthusiastic, earthy, inspiring and classy Associate Chief Justice.  And I honored her that day with my silence.

Of course, if I’d been sitting in the “orchestra”…


JED said...

That's too bad. I would have liked to hear her answers to your questions.

As far as the Supreme Court getting involved in the 2000 Presidential Election, I was disappointed that they got involved. But (using my own ellipsis-ending sentence), if Al Gore had only been able to carry his home state...

Canda said...

But, Earl, you invariably brought something else up. Is the court a court that reviews whether something is constitutional, or is it simply another legislative body?
It appears to be the latter, and Eleanor Kagan and Sonia Sottamayor seem to prove that, as well.

It goes hand in hand on why nothing works in Washington.