Wednesday, May 27, 2009
Richness of Experience?
We are to have a new SCOTUS Justice, Sonia Sotomayor from The United States Court of Appeals, District 2.
In many ways, she appears to be a very good pick.
She has many years on the bench, and prior to that, she was a prosecutor.
She has a good academic record, and although she is not known for legal brilliance, she is the child of immigrants and has the rise from the bottom story that is inspiring to all.
As a citizen, viewing this process from afar, my hope is always for a Supreme Court Justice who reveres the Constitution of the United States, and understands that she (or he) is not a maker of laws, but an arbiter of the Rule of Law, interpreting to us how our legislation relates to the Constitution. And I wish for someone humble as well as smart, someone who recognizes that justice is blind, and is no respecter of persons.
This last is why this Sotomayor quote is troubling:
"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 . . ."
(Sonia Sotomayor, at the 2001 Judge Mario B. Olmos Law and Cultural Diversity Lecture, University of California, Berkeley. Quoted in The New York Times, May 14, 2009).
Judge Sotomayor said this in the context of a remark attributed to Sandra Day O'Connor that "a wise old man and a wise old woman will reach the same conclusions when judging cases."
In my reading of her speech (the whole of which can be found here), I understand that Sotomayor is talking about the idea that women and certain minorities bring their experience to their work, and in this case the work is judging.
But this is true of every individual. All of us who have lived life for a while have rich experience and the potential for wisdom. Those old white men Sotomayor disparages also have the richness of their experiences, as do the five Catholics, two Jews, and one Protestant that Sotomayor will serve with on SCOTUS.
I am NOT concerned that diverse judges will bring their life experience to their work as arbiters of the Constitution. I AM concerned that they should remember that Lady Justice is blind; she is no respector of persons, and that each person's case deserves equal respect under the law.
I am NOT concerned that our SCOTUS justices are individuals from diverse rich backgrounds. I AM concerned that we may have a justice who believes that her background is richer and more "diverse*" than that of the others. Her statement makes me think that she believes that some backgrounds are more equal than others. And if that is her understanding, then how can Sotomayor possibly judge all cases equally under the Supreme Law of the Land, as her oath will require her to do?
*This is a poor, but common use of the word 'diverse.' Diversity means a range of differences, and so any one thing by itself cannot be 'diverse.' That this word is used this way by the progressives suggests an agenda whereby some people are indeed 'more equal' than others.
Certainly, Sotomayor has earned the right to be proud of her life's course and her accomplishments, attained through the surmounting of barriers that others on the Court may not have experienced. But those others may well have surmounted barriers of their own; some barriers of which she may know nothing, and some of which she may share with them.
Each individual has a unique background and set of life-circumstances, unique capabilities and limitations. Our very individuality makes it impossible to fairly judge who has done better or worse, who has had more difficulty or more ease in the attainments of life that can be observed. And this is why, in our Western culture, we have the concept of the Rule of Law: that the law should apply equally to the homeborn and the stranger; that you shall not favor the poor over the rich in judgment. Because we cannot see into the lives and the hearts of individuals, this is the only way to render justice--we make everyone equally accountable under the law.
I am not sure that Judge Sotomayor is willing and able to do that, given her remark that her personal life experiences make her better suited to make judgements than the life experience of others. As time goes on, I hope that we will learn more about her decisions from the bench, thus gaining a richer context for what she has said. In the meantime, we have reason to be concerned.