Is the U.S. Supreme Court a Model for Civic Engagement?

Associate Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Amy Coney Barrett joined a discussion on GW’s campus.

March 13, 2024

From left, Associate Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Amy Coney Barrett discussed civic engagement with moderator Eric Liu.

From left, Associate Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Amy Coney Barrett discussed civic engagement with moderator Eric Liu. (William Atkins/GW Today)

Does the U.S. Supreme Court offer citizens a model for civic engagement? In a conversation at George Washington University’s Dorothy Betts Marvin Theatre, Associate Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Amy Coney Barrett described the court as an extremely collegial workplace, prompting moderator Eric Liu, CEO of Citizen University, to suggest that the answer is yes.

The event, kicking off Civic Learning Week, was presented by several sponsors, including the Honey W. Nashman Center for Civic Engagement and Public Service. The conversation may be viewed online. In introductory remarks, Provost Christopher Alan Bracey noted that GW has some of the nation’s most politically active students.

“One of the key elements of GW’s academic mission is that we provide our students with the knowledge and skills to become experts in their fields, and eventually change-makers and leaders in their communities and their careers,” Bracey said.

Brief introductory remarks were also offered by Debra Sanchez of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and Geri Mannion of the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Asked how they navigate differences among their colleagues, both justices emphasized the court’s norms of collegiality.

“We don’t speak in a hot way in our conferences. We do not raise our voices no matter how hot-button the case. We speak with respect,” Barrett said. “You go around in a circle, most senior to most junior, and you say what you think. The norm is that you cannot interrupt the other person. We hear everybody out, and it's not until everybody has spoken that there can be some back and forth. We never raise our voices, and it would be a big violation of norms to do so.”

If there was one thing she wanted people to know, Barrett said, it’s that disagreements among justices are civil even when impassioned. “We work very hard to maintain those norms, and I think we are successful,” she added.

“Generally,” Sotomayor said, she agreed.

“The rule of hearing each other out, I think, is terrifically important,” she said, “because it permits you to listen to something you disagree with and know that you'll get your turn to explain why you do. That’s not to say that people aren’t passionate. There are issues that are important to people in a visceral way.”

Occasionally, Sotomayor said, a justice “might come close” to saying something that could be viewed as hurtful. Without naming names or offering details, she said there have been a few times when a senior justice suggested that a junior colleague should apologize to another member of the court.

“I really don’t ever feel that a disagreement among us involves our character,” Sotomayor said. “We are all very passionate about the work we do. We are all trying to do our best and to support the principles of the Constitution as much as we can, according to the principles that guide us. I may disagree with many of my colleagues, but I’m very vocal about that disagreement, and I lay out why I think they’re wrong, and I hope someday they’ll see the error of their ways.”

In fact, Liu said, argument and disagreement are inescapable features of civic life. Still, he said, the court sets an example for how opponents can get along.

The justices can’t afford to alienate any of their colleagues, Sotomayor added, because they may disagree on one ruling but agree on the next.

“You’re not guaranteed any lineup of five,” Sotomayor said. “I may not have Amy in this case, but I certainly will need her tomorrow on something else.”

The Supreme Court has jokingly been described as “an arranged marriage with no opportunity for divorce,” Barrett said.

“We didn’t choose one another as colleagues. We have life tenure, so we’re not going anywhere. So, we have to get along,” Barrett said. “But shouldn’t that be true of all of us in a civic community? Why should any of us want to obliterate the opposition or even see another person as the opposition? And I think we should all be trying to get along.”

Several ways to enhance civic life were discussed, including being informed about opposing arguments.

“As toxically opposed as we are in American life,” Liu said, “we don’t need fewer arguments, we just need less stupid ones. Learn the arguments. We do have differences on the role of the state, on the role of the market, on the role of the citizen in everyday life.”

Civic learning in school is important, but it begins at home, the justices agreed. Another way to improve civic life is to enhance media literacy.

“There is an obligation, as a person interested in the world, to find sources that you can rely upon,” Sotomayor said, “and to be objective about the pros and cons of every situation.”

Barrett advocated interacting with people who disagree with you. “Make a deliberate choice to seek out people who see things differently than you do,” she said, “and spend time with them.”