supreme court nominee sotomayor: facts vs. experience vs. truth

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Sunday, May 31st, 2009

supreme court nominee sotomayor: facts vs. experience vs. truth

let me be very clear: i know very little about supreme court nominee sonia sotomayor. here’s what i do know, though:

1. her name sounds like a character from some kind of international spy movie. i’m thinking like some kind of unassuming hispanic housewife turned international spy. there would be plenty of shooting poisoning russians and maybe even some kind of battle with polish hackers…
2. white dudes with mustaches (a.k.a. firefighters) in new haven, connecticut hate her 🙂 and,
3. she’s ticked off another large percentage of white dudes—in this case, they’re called republicans (tongue in cheek, people…take a joke…)—with a speech she gave in 2001 at the uc berkeley school of law.

specifically, the speech was given at a symposium concerning latinos in the judicial sphere. while the entire speech is worth reading (which you can do here), the particular part that has some people so upset is the following (i have very slightly edited this for space, but i’ve tried to be careful not to edit the meaning):

Whether born from experience or inherent physiological or cultural differences…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.
Let us not forget that wise men like Oliver Wendell Holmes and Justice Cardozo voted on cases which upheld both sex and race discrimination in our society. Until 1972, no Supreme Court case ever upheld the claim of a woman in a gender discrimination case. I, like Professor Carter, believe that we should not be so myopic as to believe that others of different experiences or backgrounds are incapable of understanding the values and needs of people from a different group. Many are so capable. As Judge Cedarbaum pointed out to me, nine white men on the Supreme Court in the past have done so on many occasions and on many issues including Brown.
However, to understand takes time and effort, something that not all people are willing to give. For others, their experiences limit their ability to understand the experiences of others. Other simply do not care. 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.

all this hearkens back, originally, with conservatives’ problem with obama’s remarks about nominating a supreme court justice who is “empathetic”. suddenly, empathy, apparently, is a very dirty political word. despite the cultural and political backlash from his remarks, obama’s nomination has certainly delivered on the promise of empathy. so, with the discovery of her 2001 speech at uc berkeley, the controversy has been even further ignited.

quite frankly, sotomayor’s remarks have made me much more interested in her judicial competency for broader cultural, sociological and theological reasons (as opposed to purely judiciary reasons). while many with objections and reservations have harped on the perceived forfeiture of facts for experience-driven decision-making, i see her remarks as more of a keen observation of a longtime reality and increasing cultural sensibilities (read: postmodernism, if you will).

i recently read a quote from a pastor who said, “don’t let facts blind you to the truth.” the quote struck me and i think there’s an interplay with justice sotomayor’s comments about race, gender and judicial decision-making. obviously, sotomayor wasn’t advocating that the facts be pushed aside. it isn’t as if the “hard facts” of the case become secondary. rather, the facts simply pass through a certain filter of personal experience. one’s personal experiences and subsequent worldview—whether they be based on gender or race or ethnicity or geographic familiarity—absolutely cannot be divorced from the way one perceives and processes the data that is before him or her. it doesn’t inherently change the facts, but the way in which we parse them out in our decision-making is very different from someone else with a different set of cultural lenses.
just last night, while having dinner with some new friends, we had a great conversation about the way we see and perceive god. what was apparent in our conversation was the echo of sotomayor’s comment. in this case, our friend—who is the mother of a 2-yr old child—spoke about growing up thinking god was angry with her and that he didn’t love her because she wasn’t good enough. while her basic understanding of the facts of scripture have most likely not changed, she talked about how the experience of having a child has changed the way she views god. her deep and unconditional love for her child has shown her—if we are truly children of god—that there’s no way god could be angry with her. how could a god characterized by love and grace and sacrifice hate his child? her experience has filtered the way she perceives the data and has led her to a different conclusion.
this, i believe, is what sotomayor has keenly observed and seemingly lives out in her judicial capacity. like i began, i honestly know very little about sonia sotomayor and know very little about the decisions she’s made as a judge. i’m simply pointing out that the remarks that have gotten so many people bent out of shape are more of a positive to me than a stumbling block. i think her comments show her ability to be self-aware and are generally reflective of the cultural shifts that have taken place in our society over the last several decades.
so, we’ll see how this all plays out. quite frankly, i don’t think she’ll have a difficult time—for political reasons—being confirmed. subsequently, i’ll be very interested to see what type of dynamic she’ll bring to the supreme court. it’s been a beautiful thing seeing more and more minority groups have prominent political representation, so i think sotomayor’s addition to the supreme court will be interesting to see play out.