The Movie That Made a Supreme Court Justice

Fordham Law Film Festival in New York Times, October 17, 2010

Media Source

By KIRK SEMPLE

Around the time that Justice Sonia M. Sotomayor was entering college, the man who would eventually become her husband took her to see a film by Sidney Lumet. It was “12 Angry Men,” from 1957, about a jury deliberating on the case of a young man accused of murder.

That film turned out to be a pivotal moment in the life of Justice Sotomayor, who at the time had been considering a career in law. In particular, she was inspired by a moment in the film in which one of the jurors, a naturalized American citizen, expresses reverence for the American jury system.

“It sold me that I was on the right path,” she told an audience Sunday evening at the Fordham University School of Law after a screening of the film. “This movie continued to ring the chords within me.”

The organizers of the Fordham Law Film Festival had invited Justice Sotomayor, who last year became the first Hispanic-American to serve on the Supreme Court, to pick a film for the event. She chose “12 Angry Men,” Mr. Lumet’s first feature film.

“We have a Supreme Court justice in the house today!” the festival’s director, Thane Rosenbaum, exclaimed when introducing the film to about 500 attendees, who filled the law school’s theater and three overflow rooms.

Passers-by who saw the admittance line snaking down West 62nd Street might have “thought the Rolling Stones were playing,” Mr. Rosenbaum said, as Justice Sotomayor smiled from her front-row seat. “We have a different kind of rock star with us.”

An hour-long question-and-answer session that followed the screening ranged widely from the cinematography of “12 Angry Men” to the accuracy (or not) of the film’s depiction of jurisprudence; from law as a theme in popular culture to Justice Sotomayor’s television-viewing habits. (She said that since college, she usually turned on the television only to watch Yankees games.)

But even as much as she admired the film, Justice Sotomayor, 56, said that when she was a lower-court judge, she would sometimes refer to it to instruct jurors how not to carry out their duties. The film, she said, “is so far from reality,” including in its depiction of some jurors’ behavior.

“There was an awful lot of speculation,” she said.

In the film, jurors discuss the weaknesses of the defendant’s legal representation. But Justice Sotomayor went further, criticizing the unseen prosecution for bringing a weak case to trial.

The job of the prosecutor is not merely to convict people, she said, but also to investigate thoroughly beforehand to ensure the defendant’s guilt.

Both the defense and prosecution in the film, she said, “failed in their duties.”

She praised the American jury system and said that during her long career, she nearly always thought juries had returned correct verdicts.

“Only the ones I lost as a prosecutor do I think the jury got it wrong,” she said, drawing laughter from the audience.

Perhaps the most moving moment of the evening was one that almost happened but did not. Mr. Lumet, 86, had been scheduled to make a surprise appearance at the screening, sitting next to Justice Sotomayor, but he was recently hospitalized and could not attend, said Mr. Rosenbaum, who is also a professor at the law school.

He added that Mr. Lumet was deeply touched to learn that Justice Sotomayor had selected his film for the festival because of its influence on her. “He said this is a real gift,” Mr. Rosenbaum recalled later.
 
Justice Sotomayor said she was despondent that Mr. Lumet could not attend on Sunday.

“I’m probably the most disappointed person in the room,” she said.