Sonia Sotomayor casually dropped a bomb about her family this week, and the message behind it is incredibly important.
The Supreme Court is currently reviewing the case of Foster v. Chatman. While the original trial happened over 20 years ago, it has come under review because of accusations of juror selection bias. Eighteen-year-old Timothy Tyrone Foster was accused of killing an elderly white woman in 1987. Foster was black, tried by a completely white jury, and sentenced to death. During juror selection, four black jurors were rejected by prosecutors for reasons they claimed were not race-related.
One of the black jurors was supposedly dismissed because she had a cousin in jail. The juror was not, however, asked if she felt this connection to the criminal justice system was something she felt would impact her impartiality toward the trial. When Sotomayor learned this, she spoke up.
"What did they do with the failure to ask Ms. Garrett any questions about the issues that troubled them, for example, her cousin's arrest?" Sotomayor asked. "There's an assumption that she has a relationship with this cousin. I have cousins who I know have been arrested, but I have no idea where they're in jail. I hardly—I don't know them. But he didn't ask any questions. Doesn't that show pretext?"
Effectively, Sotomayor was asking why the prosecutors assumed someone with an undiscussed connection to the prison system couldn't serve on a jury. People of color are disproportionately impacted by incarceration, and arbitrarily eliminating people ultimately denies defendants the basic right to be tried by a group of their peers.
Sotomayor's candor also does a great job of driving home the importance of diversity in leadership. She grew up working class in the Bronx, and brings experiences to the bench other justices simply haven't lived. If anything, her revelation underscores just how important it is to have leaders who can relate to the different backgrounds and perspectives of the people they serve.
Cover photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images.