Liberal Justice Sotomayor says U.S. Supreme Court 'mistakes' can be fixed

WASHINGTON, June 16 (Reuters) - Liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor said on Thursday the U.S. Supreme Court's "mistakes" in high-profile cases can be corrected over time as she adopted a positive tone ahead of a decision in which its conservative majority is expected to curtail abortion rights.

Sotomayor, speaking in Washington at the annual meeting of a liberal legal group, did not directly address last month's publication of a leaked draft opinion in the abortion case or any of the court's other current cases. But Sotomayor said she believes the court can help people "regain the public's confidence" in government institutions.

The leaked draft ruling, authored by conservative Justice Samuel Alito, indicated that the court's conservative majority is set to overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion nationwide. The court has a 6-3 conservative majority, with Sotomayor one of three liberal justices.

"Institutions are made up by humans. Because we are human, by necessity we make mistakes. It is the nature of the human enterprise," Sotomayor told the American Constitution Society meeting.

Asked why lawyers on the left should have hope, Sotomayor said they have no choice but to fight.

"There are days I get discouraged, there are moments where I am deeply disappointed," she said. "Every time I do that, I lick my wounds for a while, sometimes I cry, and then I say: 'Let's fight.'"

Sotomayor noted that it took almost a century for the court to undo the notorious 1857 Dred Scott decision that declared that the U.S. Constitution did not apply to enslaved Black people. She noted that it also took until 1954 for the court to issue its Brown v. Board of Education ruling that struck down racial segregation in education, undoing an 1896 ruling in the case called Plessy v. Ferguson allowing "separate but equal" treatment of the races.

"Dred Scott lost his 11-year battle for freedom in the courts. ... Yet he won the war," Sotomayor said. "So that's why I think we have to have continuing faith in the court system, in our system of government, in our ability ... I hope not through war ... towards continuing the battle each day to regain the public's confidence."

The draft opinion set off a political firestorm, with abortion-rights supporters staging rallies outside the courthouse and at locations around the United States, as well as an internal crisis at the nation's top judicial body. Chief Justice John Roberts ordered an investigation into the source of the unprecedented disclosure, which is still underway.

The draft opinion would uphold a restrictive Mississippi law banning abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy and overturn Roe v. Wade.

Sotomayor, who has served on the court since 2009, spoke of the importance of believing that when people do "wrong things" it does not mean they are "bad people."

She also cited her friendship with conservative Justice Clarence Thomas.

"I suspect I have probably disagreed with him more than with any other justice," Sotomayor said. "And yet, Justice Thomas is the one justice in the building who literally knows every employee's name."

"He is a man who cares deeply about the court as an institution, about the people who work there," Sotomayor added.

Speaking at a judicial conference in Atlanta last month, Thomas struck a different tone, saying that the court should not be "bullied into giving you just the outcomes you want." read more

The court is due to issue its ruling in the abortion case by the end of June, along with decisions in 17 other cases. The court also has major cases to decide on gun rights, climate change, immigration and religious liberty.

Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham

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Thomson Reuters

Washington-based reporter covering legal affairs with a focus on the U.S. Supreme Court, a Pulitzer Prize winner for team project on how the defense of qualified immunity protects police officers accused of excessive force.