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A Little Context: Sonia Sotomayor's "Wise Latina" Comment

Tuesday, July 14, 2009 - 09:04 AM

Here are the 32 controversial words that will be at the center of the hearings:

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.

And here, from a Speech at UC-Berkeley, 2001, is the full context:

In our private conversations, Judge [Miriam] Cedarbaum has pointed out to me that seminal decisions in race and sex discrimination cases have come from Supreme Courts composed exclusively of white males. I agree that this is significant but I also choose to emphasize that the people who argued those cases before the Supreme Court which changed the legal landscape ultimately were largely people of color and women. I recall that Justice Thurgood Marshall, Judge Connie Baker Motley, the first black woman appointed to the federal bench, and others of the NAACP argued Brown v. Board of Education. Similarly, Justice [Ruth Bader] Ginsburg, with other women attorneys, was instrumental in advocating and convincing the Court that equality of work required equality in terms and conditions of employment.

Whether born from experience or inherent physiological or cultural differences, a possibility I abhor less or discount less than my colleague Judge Cedarbaum, our gender and national origins may and will make a difference in our judging. Justice [Sandra Day] 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 Justice O'Connor is the author of that line since Professor Resnik attributes that line to Supreme Court Justice Coyle. I am also 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 [Benjamin] 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.

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Comments [4]

raindog (raindog) 's status on Wednesday, 15-Jul-0

[...] http://blogs.wnyc.org/lehrer/2009/07/14/a-little-context-sonia-sotomayors-wise-latina-comment/ [...]

Jul. 15 2009 03:59 PM
Paul

This speech shows that Sotomayor is fairly well informed on the concepts of emotional intelligence, human communication, and a robust understanding of what 'diversity' really means. (Not quotas, or race and gender, but awareness of ALL the differences people bring to the table within a context, and how those influence decision making.) Yes, even 9 white men have a great deal of diversity between them that can cause problems.

I actually think this would qualify her to be Chief Justice one day, in that she would be able to manage the personalities and perspectives of the other justices in a productive manner.

It's a shame that one unfortunate sounding phrase gets all the attention.

Jul. 15 2009 02:43 AM
Randy Russell

As my momma used to say, "consider the source." Sessions was nominated to the Supreme Court in the 1980s but his nomination never even made it to the floor because of his racist views. Even his own home state senator, the late Howard Heflin, voted against him. Sessions is one reason I don't readily admit the fact that I'm from Alabama.

Jul. 14 2009 10:24 PM
Shari

Make him stop or shoot me now! Whether desired or not in a judge for whom the ideal is to be impartial, for Senator Sessions to repeatedly insist that who we are (ethnically, racially, religiously/spiritually, socioeconomically, politically, along with our many and diverse life experiences does/would not (consciously or subconsciously)affect our views and possibly our judgement is dishonest and belligerent. It's a thinly veiled attempt to trap Sonia Sotomayor. It would make sense if she wasn't so outstanding in every way. Tell him to read Malcolm Gladwell's book Blink!

Jul. 14 2009 10:29 AM

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