"Personal experiences affect the facts that judges choose to see." -- Sonia Sotomayor, Oct. 2001
Eight years ago, Judge Sonia Sotomayor gave an unremarkable speech at the University of California, Berkeley, in which she discussed the importance of race and gender diversity on the bench. Given the bitter partisan battles that accompany Supreme Court nominations, it is altogether unsurprising that hysterical conservative commentators have used out-of-context quotes from that speech to cast Sotomayor as a scary "reverse racist."
Neither the rants of Rush Limbaugh nor the Twitter twitches of Newt Gingrich are worth refuting. Nor does Sotomayor -- who graduated summa cum laude from Princeton and was an editor of the law journal at Yale -- need any defense against the ugly whisper campaign that has attempted to portray her as either too dumb for the Supreme Court or too, ah ... rhymes with witchy. She is more than capable of defending herself.
Still, a thing or two ought to be said about the bizarre notion than Sotomayor should be disqualified because she has acknowledged that personal experiences play a role in her judgments. That's a commonsense observation, but it has been cast as a breach of judicial ethics, a heresy among the black-robed Spocks who render objective judgments about the law.
Hogwash. All human beings, including affluent white men, see life through the prism of their experiences. We cannot separate our views and values from the experiences that made us who we are.
For example, if you have spent your life in a middle-class environment where everyone owns a car and travels by plane, it's hard to imagine that a law requiring a state-sponsored photo ID would keep some eligible voters from the polls. But I grew up in a small Alabama town with many law-abiding, churchgoing elderly voters who didn't have a driver's license and have never needed one. So I know people who are unfairly hampered by rigid voter ID laws.
Indeed, my views have been inexorably shaped by my childhood, spent under the lash of Jim Crow. I will always harbor doubts about the fairness of the criminal justice system; I will always be skeptical toward authority, having lived under the dictates of George Wallace; I will always resent analyses that cast doubt on the intellectual capacity of any woman of color who is obviously a high achiever (see Sotomayor, above). But my childhood was not overwhelmingly negative. I also had loving parents who taught me to value religious faith, hard work and fair play. They taught me to love books, to seek justice and to look past stereotypes. Those values, too, informed the adult I became.
Still, a black woman with a background very similar to mine -- Condoleezza Rice -- arrived at a very different political philosophy. So did Clarence Thomas (who seems to have been deeply affected by childhood mistreatment at the hands of the light-skinned black aristocracy). Worldview, like personality, grows out of a complex interplay of factors, so no two people are alike, no matter their sex or color or parentage.
Of course, history shows us many great jurists who were able to understand and comprehend experiences outside their own. The ability to readily comprehend the feelings, thoughts and motives of another is called "emphathy," according to The American Heritage Dictionary, a trait which ought to be considered a fine thing for a Supreme Court justice to have.
But that attribute, too, has driven Sotomayor's critics around the bend, since they not only lack empathy but also self-awareness. They don't know what they don't know.
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