Sotomayor SCOTUS Dance Party

October 7th, 2014

One of the lighter moments of Joan Biskupic’s excellent new book describes the party held at the Court at the end of Justice Sotomayor’s first term. In what seemed a planned move, Justice Sotomayor tried to spice up the stodgy affair by playing salsa music, and inviting the other Justices to dance. Some of the Justices obliged, but not all of them were happy about this. Forget cameras for oral arguments–I want cameras for Dancing with the SCOTUS Stars! Biskupic published an excerpt:

As the skits were ending, she sprang from her chair, turned to the law clerks and declared that, though their musical numbers were fine, they lacked a certain something. With that, a law clerk cued salsa music on a small portable player. Sotomayor began dancing.

She took quick steps forward, back and turned, then repeated it. The Cuban- and Puerto Rican-inspired rhythms were as new to this setting as the justice who was dancing to them. For her salsa partners, Sotomayor first grabbed a few law clerks, who, it was clear, had arranged it with her. Then she beckoned the justices, starting with Roberts.

A buttoned-down man who rarely shed his suit jacket at the court, Roberts was reluctant. He looked terribly uncomfortable. The audience was apprehensive. Traditionally, this was an event where the law clerks performed and the justices watched. Roberts decided to be a good sport. He got up and danced with her. Briefly.

Sotomayor’s barrel-ahead style clashed with the court’s usual order and predictability. The institution operates on a down-to-the-minute schedule. Everyone knows his or her place, which corridors are open, which are closed. Steady, quiet rhythms control, reflecting the ideal of consistency in the law.

But now a justice was dancing salsa in a room where formal portraits set the tone. Sotomayor’s hips swayed to the beat of the distinctive drums and horns.

As she sought out partners, nervous colleagues danced a bit, one by one, then retreated to their chairs. Justice Anthony Kennedy, six foot two and favoring dark suits with coordinated tie and pocket handkerchief, did a jitterbug-style move. Justice John Paul Stevens, the oldest at age 90, got up, too. But he felt as if he had two left feet and quickly sat down, happy to watch Sotomayor move on to other partners.

“Where’s Nino?” she shouted toward the back. Scalia started to shake his head. There was no way he was going to dance. But then he did, sort of. Justice Samuel Alito, tall and shy, looked even more awkward when Sotomayor got to him. He resisted.

But the rest of the audience was into the spectacle now. They were standing up, laughing and whooping. So Alito danced a little bit. Then Sotomayor went toward Ginsburg, whose husband, Martin, had died three days earlier after a long illness. She did not want to rise from her chair, but Sotomayor whispered that her late husband would have wanted her to dance. Ginsburg followed in a few steps. Then she put her hands up to Sotomayor’s face. Holding her two cheeks in her palms, Ginsburg said, “Thank you.”

As the program closed and people began leaving the room, emotions were strong. It had been a difficult term, and Sotomayor’s enthusiasm was catching. Scalia, who could shake things up in his own way, joked as people passed him near the doorway, saying, “I knew she’d be trouble.”

But some people were not as amused. They thought the new justice was calling too much attention to herself, revealing a self-regard that challenged more than the court’s decorum. One justice and one top court officer said separately that it was too much  blurring of the lines between the clerks, who traditionally took the stage at the party, and the justices, who sat in judgment in the audience.

I heard about this story a few years ago–in particular Justice Scalia’s hostility to the invitation. What a way to start the term! Now, Justice Sotomayor asked Scalia to go dancing? Will she, like Justice Kagan, oblige Nino’s invitation to go hunting? (Assuming such an invitation was forthcoming).