Jurisprudence

Sonia Sotomayor Celebrates San Francisco’s New Progressive District Attorney

The justice compared the newest progressive prosecutor’s journey to her own.

In a courthouse, Chesa Boudin raises his fist as people around him look at him and applaud.
San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin gestures as he walks with Valerie Block during his swearing-in ceremony on Wednesday.
Jeff Chiu/AP

Chesa Boudin was sworn in as San Francisco district attorney on Wednesday at a ceremony celebrating Boudin’s unlikely journey from public defender to the city’s top prosecutor. Boudin’s progressive campaign was considered a long shot, and the mayor and the police worked hard to defeat him and elevate his opponent. He has pledged to make immediate reforms to the office that are sure to draw fierce resistance from supporters of the status quo. Still, he already seems to have friends in high places. The ceremony included a prerecorded video in which Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor congratulated Boudin and compared his path to her own.

“Your personal strength and commitment to reforming and improving the criminal justice system is a testament to the person you are and the role model you will continue to be for so many,” she said.

It’s easy to see why Sotomayor has such respect for Boudin. She was raised by a single mother in a housing project; he was raised by family friends after his own parents—Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert, members of the Weather Underground—were arrested and imprisoned when he was 14 months old. Both overcame early adversity, attended Yale Law School, and became legal superstars. But while Boudin began his career as a reformer, joining San Francisco’s public defenders, Sotomayor began as a prosecutor, learning the system from the inside. Once on the bench, Sotomayor drew upon her prosecutorial experience to combat injustices suffered by defendants and their families. Boudin plans to draw upon his personal and professional experience to reform the office he now leads.

Supreme Court spokeswoman Kathy Arberg told me on Thursday that Sotomayor met Boudin at an event at Yale Law School. Boudin “invited the justice to the swearing-in ceremony but she was unable to attend, so she sent him a congratulatory message.”

Boudin ran for district attorney on a platform of holding police accountable for misconduct, eliminating cash bail, dramatically reducing incarceration and pretrial detention, and implementing restorative justice. His passion for systemic change is, like Sotomayor’s, partly personal. Sotomayor told Boudin:

The difficulties you faced as a child, including that you did not read until age 9, are common among children of prisoners. You have lived the stigma of anger, shame and guilt that so many such children in the criminal justice system experience. … Chesa, you have undertaken a remarkable challenge today. I hope you reflect as a great beacon to many, and the road to accomplishing what you have set out to do will be daunting. Nevertheless, the city of San Francisco will be so very well served by a man whose life creed is believing, as you told me: “We are all safer when we uplift victims, hold everyone accountable for their actions, and do so with empathy and compassion.”

Sotomayor’s address, which was transcribed by the San Francisco Chronicle, captures two hallmarks of the justice’s writings: her profound empathy for individuals whose lives are upended by the criminal justice system, and her faith in those individuals’ ability to rise above the most dire of circumstances.

Sotomayor’s jurisprudence reflects a sensitivity to the collateral consequences of arrest and prosecution that so many judges lack. She famously acknowledged from the bench that she has cousins in jail, setting her apart from her mostly privileged colleagues. One of her most celebrated dissents, in Utah v. Strieff, ended with a scathing indictment of racial profiling and mass incarceration. The case revolved around whether prosecutors could use evidence obtained by the police in an illegal stop. Sotomayor explained that, under Supreme Court precedent, a police officer can conduct “degrading” stops for “whatever reason he wants—so long as he can point to a pretextual justification after the fact.” That justification “may factor in your ethnicity,” “where you live,” and “what you were wearing.” If you are arrested, even for speeding or jaywalking, you can be jailed, fingerprinted, given a DNA swab, and subjected to a strip search.

It is “no secret,” Sotomayor added, “that people of color are disproportionate victims of this type of scrutiny.” But the court’s decisions tell “everyone, white and black, guilty and innocent,” that “your body is subject to invasion while courts excuse the violation of your rights”—that “you are not a citizen of a democracy but the subject of a carceral state, just waiting to be cataloged.”

There is only so much Sotomayor can do to protect Americans from intrusions by the “carceral state.” A majority of her colleagues do not appear to share her interest in shielding frequent targets of discrimination from degradation at the hands of law enforcement. It will require many more reformers like Boudin to change the system from the inside out and to compel police to respect constitutional rights. Sotomayor cannot do this work on her own. But in opinions like Strieff, she helped to inspire new generation of advocates to take control of the very institutions that threaten our liberties.