Lunch With Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor

 I have to admit that it was with some trepidation that I joined Supreme Court Justice, Sonia Sotomayor, for lunch this week in San Francisco. I have friends in the New York federal prosecutors office who warned me that she was tough as nails and a complete bitch, first as a prosecutor herself, and later as a judge.

I confided this observation to her, and she agreed completely. Growing up as a poor Hispanic girl in the South Bronx, with a single parent family, demanded more than toughness. Her father died young from chronic alcoholism.

As a kid, she beat up a lot of others, but was thrashed often herself. It was certainly no place for weaklings, or those who stuck to establishment rules. Her family nicknamed her “ahi”, Puerto Rican for “hot chili pepper.”

Interviewing Supreme Court justices is tough, as I learned when I met Sandra Day O’Connor a few months ago, the first woman ever appointed. But at least we had some common ground, both growing up on ranches in the baking Southwest before air conditioning was invented. The great insight with her was that on her first day at work there was no woman’s bathroom at the Supreme Court. Sonia Sotomayor would be a different kettle of fish.

Justices are not permitted to comment on any cases in the recent past, present, or those that may appear in front of them in the future. And by recent, I mean in the past 12 years. You really have to go back to Andrew Jackson for them to feel totally comfortable.

Back then, my own family took a case to the court on the interpretation of the India Removals Act of 1830. We won. So the best that you can do is try and get the measure of the person, their character and their motivations, and distill down their essence. Then you have to extrapolate forward as to how this may influence their future decisions.

You might ask what this piece is doing in an investment newsletter. But the Supreme Court is playing a growing role in the lives of traders. The recent decision in favor of Obamacare totally upended the entire health care industry, which accounts for no less than 12% of our GDP, and will soon rise to 18% (You sold the HMO’s and bought the drug companies).

The Citizens United decision permitting unlimited anonymous corporate political donations was a boon for the media and the Washington DC commercial property market, as tens of thousands of new lobbyists were hired. Bush v Gore, which decided the 2000 presidential election, turned out to be the greatest windfall in history for the oil and defense industries. Investors ignore the Supreme Court at their peril.

Justice Sotomayor frankly admitted to me that she was an early beneficiary of affirmative action. But she ran like thoroughbred, once the bit was between her teeth. She was one of the first women admitted to Princeton, which proved to be a totally alien environment. There she heard a Southern accent for the first time. The looking glass metaphors in Lewis Carol’s Alice in Wonderland were unknown to her.

When invited to join Phi Beta Kappa for her academic excellence, she thought it was a scam. They asked for money for a lousy symbolic key, so she threw it in the trash. Sonia rarely slept, graduated Summa cum Laude in 1976, and moved on to Yale Law School.

Racial slurs, sexism, and discrimination, feature large in her life. When she worked as a corporate litigator, a senior partner complained that he didn’t know why the firm was hiring all these minorities, only to dismiss them for incompetence a few years later. I hope this guy isn’t planning on pleading any cases in front of the Supreme Court in the near future. In fact, Sotomayor will have to rule on a reverse discrimination case brought by a white college student some time this year.

Sotomayor is one of those rare individuals who walks a fine line between both political parties. She was appointed a federal judge by George H.W. Bush. She was moved up to the Appeals Court by Bill Clinton. Obama named her as his second Supreme Court appointment, and only the third woman in history.

I think the majority of observers missed the most important outcome of the 2012 presidential election. If a conservative justice dies or retires before 2016, and another liberal replaces Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the impact on history will be huge. Then, the court swings from a 5-4 conservative vote, where it has been for the past 40 years, to 5-4 liberal for the next 40 years.

Sotomayor is a crucial part of this plan, and is so far following the script. In her first case, during which she confesses she was “terrified”, she dissented on the above-mentioned Citizens United case. She has voted with left leaning Justices Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer 90 percent of the time, one of the highest agreement rates on the Court. She was in the 5–3 majority in Arizona v. United States that struck down several aspects of the state’s anti-illegal immigration law. She was also in the 5-4 majority that ruled in favor of Obamacare.

The US Supreme Court is a world stage, as its decisions are closely followed by many other countries. It is a non-stop conversation in which she walked at mid point. Sonia says most people would find her job boring, as it is very contemplative. The court only hears 60-80 cases a year, and allocates just an hour to hear arguments for each case. The rest of her time is spent reading, writing, editing, and arguing with other justices.

The reality that there is no higher court than her own places an additional burden on her decisions. It is all humbling, as every case produces someone who, in the end, believes an injustice has been done. You can’t play God. Sotomayor is the only member of the court who has worked as a judge.

Sonia revealed to me that her inspiration to go into law came from the Nancy Drew children’s mystery novels and the Perry Mason TV series. Chronic type 2 diabetes prevented her from working in the field. For her, being a lawyer enabled her to work as a detective while in the confines of an office.

On January 21, Sotomayor administered the oath of office to Vice President, Joseph Biden. Not bad for someone who claims her main accomplishment in life was throwing the opening pitch at a New York Yankees game in her hometown Bronx.

As our lunch broke up, she invited me to Washington to tour the Supreme Court and meet the other justices. I said I might just take her up on that.

Sonia Sotomayor