Have you noticed that the Senate Judiciary Committee seems fixated on Judge Sotomayor’s gender and ethnicity? I have a theory about that.
This week I have been following the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearings with Judge Sotomayor regarding her nomination to the Supreme Court. [Hi. My name is Lisa, and I’m a news junkie. My evening typically starts with leaving work about 5:00, turning on my local NPR affiliate radio station in the car and when I get home, then flipping over to the PBS Newshour at 6:00.]
It seems to me that the one item about which Senators (especially the Republican Senators) have hammered again and again is the statement she made in 2001, 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 has not lived that life.” That statement seems to have sent many of the Senators around the bend.
In its July 14 coverage, the Newshour reported this exchange:
[PBS correspondent] KWAME HOLMAN: … Committee Chair Patrick Leahy moved to pre-empt Republican criticism in his opening questions.Then Senator Sessions turned to her 2005 statement at Duke University that the court of appeals is where policy is made.
He asked Sotomayor about her much-debated 2001 remark that "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 has not lived that life."
SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D), Vermont: So tell us. You've heard all these charges and countercharges, the "wise Latina," and on and on. Here's your chance. You tell us -- you tell us what's going on here, Judge.
JUDGE SONIA SOTOMAYOR, Supreme Court Justice Nominee: Thank you for giving me an opportunity to explain my remarks. No words I have ever spoken or written have received so much attention.
As my speech made clear, in one of the quotes that you referenced, I was trying to inspire them to believe that their life experiences would enrich the legal system, because different life experiences and backgrounds always do. I don't think that there is a quarrel with that in our society.
I was also trying to inspire them to believe that they could become anything they wanted to become, just as I had.
The context of the words that I spoke have created a misunderstanding. And I want -- and misunderstanding -- and to give everyone assurances, I want to state upfront, unequivocally and without doubt, I do not believe that any ethnic, racial, or gender group has an advantage in sound judging. I do believe that every person has an equal opportunity to be a good and wise judge, regardless of their background or life experiences.
KWAME HOLMAN: But the explanation did not satisfy Alabama's Jeff Sessions, the committee's ranking Republican. When he pressed the point, Sotomayor said she had tried a rhetorical flourish that fell flat.
JUDGE SONIA SOTOMAYOR: It was bad, because it left an impression that I believed that life experiences commanded a result in a case, but that's clearly not what I do as a judge. It's clearly not what I intended.
In the context of my broader speech, which was attempting to inspire young Hispanic, Latino students and lawyers to believe that their life experiences added value to the process.
SEN. JEFF SESSIONS (R), Alabama: Well, I can see that, perhaps, as a layperson's approach to it, but as a judge who's taken this oath, I'm very troubled that you would repeatedly, over a decade or more, make statements that consistently -- any fair reading of these speeches consistently argues that this ideal and commitment -- I believe every judge is committed -- must be -- to put aside their personal experiences and biases and make sure that that person before them gets a fair day in court.
[PBS correspondent] KWAME HOLMAN: That led to an exchange over the nominee's broader view of how a judge's background could influence decisions.I am struck by the fact that the Republican Senators seem to be fixated on the notion that Judge Sotomayor’s gender and ethnicity might come into play in her judgments on the Supreme Court.
JUDGE SONIA SOTOMAYOR: Never their prejudices. I was talking about the very important goal of the justice system is to ensure that the personal biases and prejudices of a judge do not influence the outcome of a case.
What I was talking about was the obligation of judges to examine what they're feeling as they're adjudicating a case and to ensure that that's not influencing the outcome.
Life experiences have to influence you. We're not robots who listen to evidence and don't have feelings. We have to recognize those feelings and put them aside. That's what my speech was saying...
SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: Well, Judge...
JUDGE SONIA SOTOMAYOR: ... that's our job.
SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: But the statement was, "I willingly accept that we who judge must not deny the differences resulting from experience and heritage, but continuously to judge when those opinions, sympathies and prejudices are appropriate." That's exactly opposite of what you're saying, is it not?
JUDGE SONIA SOTOMAYOR: I don't believe so, Senator, because all I was saying is, because we have feelings and different experiences, we can be led to believe that our experiences are appropriate. We have to be open-minded to accept that they may not be and that we have to judge always that we're not letting those things determine the outcome.
But there are situations in which some experiences are important in the process of judging, because the law asks us to use those experiences.
Has any Senate Judiciary Committee ever fixated on the gender and ethnicity of the straight white males who have always dominated the Supreme Court? If not, why not? Why are they terrified of this Latina woman?
What I hear Judge Sotomayor saying is that a Supreme Court justice should recognize the biases that s/he might bring into his/her deliberations, try to set them aside, and then make a just decision. Isn’t that just simple logic?
It strikes me that the (supposedly) straight, white, male members of the Senate Judiciary Committee have probably never had to ask themselves whether their White Male Privilege has ever made them biased in their judgments and decisions.
Apparently, it’s only The Other that frightens them.
All this reminds me of my friends Michael and Dirk – partners for something more than 20 years. Dirk is a white man; Michael is black. Every now and then, they will be ignored or get lousy service in a restaurant or other retail establishment, in ways that suggest it may be because Michael is black. Dirk is hilarious when he gets his back up and barks: “Don’t they know I have White Male Privilege?” There’s always an ironic [even if unspoken] “hrrumph” after his quip.
The enlightened, gay Dirk realizes that he benefits in this culture from White Male Privilege. Our U.S. Senators aren’t as smart as Dirk. They don’t realize their privilege or their unexamined assumptions.