Sotomayor: Balancing Power on the Court

Judge Sonia Sotomayor would help provide balance to a U.S. Supreme Court that remains all too white and all too male.

Dismissing the effect of life experiences on decision–making is to treat judges like Vulcan characters. Some jurists may claim to be Spock clones, but they’re not. Spock was fiction.

The Party-of-No began opposing Sotomayor even before President Obama nominated her for the Supreme Court, citing a speech she made acknowledging that the paths people walk through life may affect their accumulation of wisdom.

Here is what she said in a 2001 speech entitled "A Latina Judge's Voice":  “Whether born from experience or inherent physiological or cultural differences, a possibility I abhor less or discount less than my colleague Judge Cedarbaum, our gender and national origins may and will make a difference in our judging. Justice O'Connor has often been cited as saying that a wise old man and wise old woman will reach the same conclusion in deciding cases...I am not so sure that I agree with the statement. First, as Professor Martha Minnow has noted, there can never be a universal definition of wise. Second, I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life.”

It makes you wonder how the infamous Dred Scott case would have been decided if three or four black justices had sat on the Supreme Court in 1857. An all-white panel decided in that case that black human beings imported from Africa as slaves and their descendents were not legally people and could not, as a result, be U.S. citizens. All-male panels of justices never saw gender discrimination in a Supreme Court case until 1972.

Here’s what Judge Sotomayor also, wisely, said in that speech, “Hence, one must accept the proposition that a difference there will be by the presence of women and people of color on the bench. Personal experiences affect the facts that judges choose to see. My hope is that I will take the good from my experiences and extrapolate them further into areas with which I am unfamiliar. I simply do not know exactly what that difference will be in my judging. But I accept there will be some based on my gender and my Latina heritage.”

To do justice in a diverse society, the justices themselves must be diverse. President Obama has nominated for the Supreme Court a judge who was valedictorian of her high school class, who won a scholarship to Princeton University and who served as editor of the Yale Law Review while earning her law degree from Yale University. She was first appointed to the federal bench by former President George H.W. Bush and to her current seat on the federal appeals bench by former President Bill Clinton. She has more judicial experience than anyone currently serving on the court when appointed. In addition to all of that, she is wise and thoughtful. She acknowledges and celebrates the fact that her path to this place may affect the future.

That is telling the truth. It is also the truth that Chief Justice John Roberts’  background as a wealthy white male affects his thinking. For the workers in this country, the people of color, the women, for everyone who is not wealthy, white and male, to provide balance on the court is to improve justice.

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