Is the Sotomayor Berkeley 2001 statement that’s now being bandied about racist? Here’s what she said, not in the context of her full talk (for that you can go here): “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion [as a judge] than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.”
Well in my case I wouldn’t call her, or her words racist, as have Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh, Tom Tancredo and others of their ilk (all of whom should have remained dumb), but she is clearly implying that certain life experiences are somehow “richer” than others (those of the Latina woman vs. those of the white man), at least in regard to the amount of “wisdom?” to be drawn from these experiences.
But wouldn’t we all agree that some lives are “richer” in regard to the variety, depth, and the kinds of experiences that one can have on this earth? And perhaps that’s all the underlying meaning we should give to her words. What she says if properly understood could simply be a truism.
There are certainly life experiences that do, or should, make us wiser. Wouldn’t you allow a Holocaust survivor to see herself as a better judge of human behavior in extreme conditions, even though in a given case it might not be that way? Better judgments do not necessarily come from greater depth of experience, but they may, and my own experience, as that of Judge Sotomayor, tells me that they often do.
Sotomayor’s own story is now well known. She grew up experiencing poverty and deprivation (her father died when was just eight) in a single parent (her mother) family in the Bronx. She did well in catholic school and went on to Princeton, actually a long time bastion (much less so today, of course) of white male supremacy.
At Princeton during the 1970s Sotomayor probably looked at her white male classmates and felt that her own experience set her apart, gave her knowledge of things of which they were ignorant. Is anyone surprised by this not unreasonable conjecture? To some extent we all do this. Attribute a specialness to what we have learned, and that others, who have not had our experiences, have not learned.
And she probably experienced more of the same kinds of feelings while attending Law School at Yale where she went following her graduation Summa Cum Laude from Princeton. For even in law school, immersed in legal precedent and theory, one doesn’t, one can’t give up what one is and what one knows based on one’s own life experiences.
In this regard see the remarks of Charles Ogletree, who had this to say regarding the controversy: “it is obvious that people’s life experiences will inform their judgments in life as lawyers and judges because law is more than ‘a technical exercise,’ and I cite Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s famous aphorism: ‘The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience.’”
Nor can one (give up what one knows) at a later point in one’s life. It was such a later point in her life, some 25 years after graduation from Princeton, when Sotomayor addressed a group of her peers in Berkeley at a ceremony commemorating the 40th anniversary of the first judicial appointment of a Latino to a federal court, that she made the now too famous “wise Latina” remark.
That she felt this way is unremarkable. However, she now does have a problem (she shouldn’t have, but she does) because she said this in public, and at a time when she was a sitting judge on the federal Appeals Court in New York. This fact does, perhaps, raise the need for a closer look at her candidacy, although it doesn’t justify the racist remarks of Gingrich, Limbaugh et al.
All of this leads me to ask if somehow judges are supposed to have gone beyond their own life experiences when they make court judgments of the lives and actions of others. Are their decisions not supposed to stem in part or in whole from their own life stories, no matter how “rich” these may have been as in Sotomayor’s case, but rather are they supposed to stem entirely from their deep and wide knowledge of the Law?
We probably don’t even need to ask Sotomayor herself about the meaning she would give to the “Latina woman” remark. Whatever she meant by the remark I’m sure she didn’t believe that her own experiences as a Latina and woman made her judgments somehow wiser that those of white male judges who clearly had not had anything like her own life experiences. Only if I’m wrong about that (and how would I know if I were) and if public opinion turned against her for this or for something else, would her confirmation by the Senate not be a sure thing.
My hope is that we move quickly beyond all this. And that the President be allowed to have his first choice. Furthermore, the President was right in his remarks about empathy. For (and especially) in the austere person of a judge on the highest court of the land empathy, or being able to feel, and not only intellectually grasp, the positions of the opposants in a case, is an especially desirable quality for the judge, and a person, to possess.