U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor Ribbed by Former Canadian Justice Rosalie Abella at Hot Docs Panel: ‘What’s With Your Court?’

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor took a few jabs during Monday’s Hot Docs world premiere of Barry Avrich’s “Without Precedent: The Supreme Life of Rosalie Abella.”

The American Justice was in Toronto to celebrate Abella, who served on Canada’s Supreme Court from 2004 until her retirement in 2021.

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Avrich’s “Without Precedent: The Supreme Life of Rosalie Abella” is a portrait of Abella’s life and career. As the first Jewish woman, and refugee to sit on Canada’s top court bench, Abella was a fierce advocate for women’s rights, the disabled, and visible minorities.

After the 84 minute doc, Abella, Avrich, Sotomayor and the film’s exec producer Mark Selby sat for a Q&A.

Sotomayor explained that she met Abella in 2010, six months after she began serving on the Supreme Court of the United States.

“I was in a room with Supreme Court justices from the United States and from Canada,” Sotomayor recalled. “As to be expected, they were all very proper and a little bit stuffy. (I was) the newbie feeling very nervous and uncomfortable. And then I see Rosie, and she smiles and her eyes light up. Then all of a sudden, a burden came off my shoulders…What really struck me at the time was, here was this very human person with a huge heart and an absolute brilliance that would disarm the unknowing.”

The daughter of Holocaust survivors, Abella was determined from a young age to practice law and would become one of Canada’s most progressive Supreme Court judges in history.

“Why have Rosie’s decisions been so closely monitored?” asked Sotomayor. “Because she forces each of us to examine our conscience. Where else does justice come from? From our conscience.”

Abella then quipped, “So, what’s with your Court?”

After the audience stopped howling, Sotomayor jokingly said, “That’s below the belt.”

“There’s too many belts,” Abella retorted.

Abella admitted that she initially did not want to be the subject of Avrich’s documentary, but ultimately her late husband, Canadian historian Irving Abella, convinced her to do it.

“I was very nervous about how to communicate a life on film,” she said. “I’m a print person. I write, I read. I love movies. But I really didn’t think that (my story) was a story that anybody besides my family would want to see.”

As for her legacy and the progress Canada has made around equality, Abella said that she is proud of both.

“It’s been an ever-increasing trajectory towards including more and more people so far,” she said. “And I say so far because you have to look around the world and say, we shouldn’t be smug.”

Abella then turned to Sotomayor and concluded with, “One has only to look elsewhere to know much better off we are in this country.”

The playful banter was followed by a more serious note from Sotomayor.

“If you do not protect your values, you can lose them,” she said. “And right now, America is showing you how that can be done. And so, to whatever extent you value how far you’ve come, you need people like Rosie to continue the fight moving forward.”

Abella added: “I was surrounded by like-minded people on the courts, all of them. It was not difficult to be and do the things that I did. I think the real heroes are the ones who do what Sonya Sotomayor is doing in a singular, solitary, difficult, isolated, isolating way, heroically every single day.”

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