Sonia Sotomayor Won't Be Gaslit by Her Fellow Supreme Court Justices, and Neither Should You

When she called out the “stench” on the bench, she showed us how to stay in the fight, no matter how dire things look.

Justice Sotomayor Was the Only Bright Spot During the Oral Arguments
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On December 1, 2021, a mere month and a half shy of Roe v. Wade's 49th birthday, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case that could finally end it, Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization. The writing on the wall of Wednesday's oral arguments seemed clear: legal abortion is in serious jeopardy.

Dobbs involves Mississippi's ban on abortions at 15 weeks, a clear and direct violation of Roe that, in theory, should be easy for the Supreme Court to strike down (you know, since the vast majority of Americans support legal abortion and that whole stare decisis thing). But, because the Supreme Court now has three new conservative justices, one of whom took a stolen seat from President Obama and the other, a still-warm seat from recently-deceased Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Court's makeup looks radically different from the electorate. While they're trying to overturn Roe v. Wade and propel American society back an entire century, the Court's conservative justices are all too happy to gaslight Americans into thinking that we don't really see what we very clearly see.

Justices Amy Coney Barrett and Samuel Alito both decried claims of partisanship on the Court, while allowing the draconian SB8 law to take effect in Texas, banning abortions at six weeks and deputizing vigilantes to enforce it. At the same time, Justice Stephen Breyer, one of the Court's three liberals, continues to wax poetic about the sanctity of the Court while it continues its rightward bent. Nothing to see here, folks! Just the Supreme Court doing legitimate Supreme Court things, like we always have!

During oral arguments for Dobbs, the dam finally broke for Justice Sonia Sotomayor, one of only three liberals left on the bench and the only Latina member of the Court. She snapped back when interrupted by Chief Justice John Roberts –– "May I finish my inquiry?" She openly chided the junk science cited by Mississippi's Solicitor General Scott Stewart. Sotomayor refused to back down and let Roe die without a fight.

Bu her most pointed moment came when she said what so many Americans were thinking:

"Will this institution survive the stench that this creates in the public perception that the Constitution and its reading are just political acts? I don't see how it is possible."

Finally, someone on the Supreme Court is willing to tell it like it is! With those few words, Sotomayor shattered the myth that the Supreme Court remains a bastion of justice and equality. Gaslight us no more, conservative justices! No, Justice Sotomayor decisively said, the sanctity of the Court cannot possibly survive the "stench" of overturning such a popular ruling, of upending the basic liberty of more than half of the American population. The Supreme Court cannot possibly appear legitimate and respectable if it overturns Roe v. Wade.

But the Court's conservatives don't care, and that's because they don't have to care. That's perhaps the most frightening aspect of this case. No matter how rotten the stench from the draconian, right-wing bench, conservatives know they have the power. It doesn't matter how they got it. They finally have it, and they're not going to blink because they have the backing of a political party hellbent on maintaining power, whether that means suppressing Black votes or just outright trying to steal an election.

If you have the ability and the political power to disregard the rights of the people you seek to oppress, you don't need legitimacy. When the Supreme Court okayed "separate but equal" in Plessy v. Ferguson, the justices didn't have to care about the rights and lives of Black Americans because they had already been systematically deprived of their rights throughout vast swaths of the country by state-based legislation and vigilante terrorism designed to do just that. In Buck v. Bell, the Supreme Court overwhelmingly upheld a Virginia law mandating forced sterilization of "feeble-minded" people in 1927, knowing that folks with disabilities and those in poverty had no political ability to fight back.

If the Court does indeed side with Mississippi, therefore gutting Roe v. Wade, they will be sentencing people who can get pregnant to a deprivation of their most basic right, the right to bodily autonomy. The conservative justices know that most Americans do not want that. They're banking on our willingness to ignore the "stench" as they do it anyway.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor knows how high the stakes are, and she knows that she doesn't have the votes to stop whatever nightmare the Court will unleash next. But in refusing to maintain the charade of the Court's legitimacy, she has channeled a unique kind of power, one that the rest of us must now embrace alongside her — the power to say "You can't fool me."

The stench is undeniable.

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