A minority who looked for an issue to try to sink President Obama’s first nomination for the Supreme Court quickly seized on Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s remark in a 2001 speech. She said she “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.”
A few Republican members of Congress, and GOP pundits, denounced her as a racist. Most others have ignored this flap, some for fear of alienating Hispanic voters but mostly out of pure fairness. Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh interpreted that line in Judge Sotomayor’s address as meaning that she thought Hispanic women were better judges than white males. She neither said nor meant any such thing, which may be why both men have backed off their attacks. Confirmation hearings for Judge Sotomayor are slated to begin next month.
In her lecture, Judge Sotomayor started right off by showing her taste in food has been “a very special part of my being Latina.” She said her “particularly adventuresome taste buds” led to her liking for pig intestines, and pigs’ tongue and ears.
That led to her observation that America takes pride in ethnic diversity while at the same time insists on ignoring those differences and living by a colorblind and race-blind standard. She agrees that judges should transcend their own sympathies and prejudices, but she said, “I wonder whether by ignoring our differences as women or men of color we do disservice both to the law and society.
“Our experiences as women and people of color affect our decisions,” she said. “The aspiration to impartiality is just that — it’s an aspiration because it denies the fact that we are by our experiences making different choices than others.”
She questioned an often-quoted statement that “a wise old man and a wise old woman reach the same conclusion.” She agreed with Harvard Law School professor Martha Minnow that there never can be a universal definition of wise. Then came her controversial remark about “a wise Latina woman.”
Pursuing that argument, she recalled that “wise men like Oliver Wendell Holmes and Justice Cardozo voted on cases which upheld both sex and race discrimination in our society,” while conceding that nine white men on the Supreme Court in the past had often shown an understanding of the values and needs of a different group, as in Brown v. Education and other decisions.
She concluded: “I can and do aspire to be greater than the sum total of my experiences, but I accept my limitations. I willingly accept that we who judge must not deny the differences resulting from experience and heritage but attempt, as the Supreme Court suggests, continuously to judge when those opinions, sympathies and prejudices are appropriate.”
With that understanding of herself and the proper role of a judge, a wise Latina woman, if found to be qualified — based on her years of legal work, not one speech — should add a welcome fresh dimension to the present court.