Context is key

In 2001, Judge Sonia Sotomayor gave a speech at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law on the role gender and racial identity have in a judge's interpretation of laws. Given the partisan nature of confirmations to the Supreme Court, it is not surprising that this speech was twisted and contorted to serve the interests of her critics. In particular, I want to focus on one tidbit from the speech which has been the playpal of many a Sotomayor critic.

At one point in her talk, Sotomayor says the following

"I further accept that our experiences as women and people of color affect our decisions. 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."

Taking her words a step further, this quote seems to suggest that Sotomayor believes that unbiased decisions will never be a reality in the courts. That in itself is not an earth-shattering idea (can an ideal in any instance ever be attained?), but she leaves open the question whether an aspiration to impartiality, because it cannot be more than an aspiration, has any function at all in the courts. Should judges refuse to keep their personal prejudices and biases in check whilst reaching decisions given that, as Sotomayor believes, their efforts will never free them of the choke hold of their background? Indeed, this quote, taken out of context, paints Sotomayor as a judicial extremist, a candidate for the High Court who believes that because judges cannot be perfectly impartial, they ought to sit back and let their race and gender define them.

Yes, Sotomayor does take the view that judges cannot achieve perfect impartiality. She does not, however, leave it at that. Further on in her speech, she goes on to say

"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."

And therein lies the soundbite that critics of Sotomayor leave out when discussing her judicial extremism. Going back to my previous point, Sotomayor confirms that point that I believe many of us are apt to agree with: that the impossibility of reaching an ideal does not mean we shouldn't do our utmost to reach it. Judges should not confer their verdicts with the air of superiority, believing that they possess an infinite wisdom. Rather, humility in rendering a decision, whether that means admitting that the precedent in a certain case is unclear or recusing oneself from a case in which one's prejudices will be unwieldy, should be the quality we look for in judges. In writing this post, I have not decided to join the You Go Latina! Sotomayor bandcamp; but I did become more wary of the age of Gotcha journalism. That being said, if anyone would like to forward Judge Sotomayor's entire speech to some of her critics, you will be doing them a favor.


annick said...

I'm not really familiar with the details of her nomination, living in La-La Renaissance Land these days, but your post does a good job of breaking down the nuances of her speech. Thanks!

luc von carrot said...

I think you should go camping with us this weekend. We can have an interesting discussion about this topic over camp fire.

digitally404 said...

Everyone's a human being, and sometimes the forces that work within us that help invoke certain emotions are too strong to ignore.

But is it bad to have emotions? Should we just look at the facts? One day we'll have computers judging us! But would you want to be judged by a computer? Something that regards sympathy as weak and only produces the maximum penalty purely weighed by facts? Is that GOOD?

Anyways, I'm sure biased behaviour happens all the time. Check out the recent biased Pirate Bay judge.

Eva said...

annick: I would love to learn more about the Renaissance from you!

luc: I'm glad I didn't go camping - the weather was terrible!

digital: You make an excellent (and thought-provoking) point about whether logic should be the end-all in judicial decisions.