Talking Cultural Diversity

a discussion board for cultural and diversity issues by Thomas Kochman and Jean Mavrelis

Sotomayor and Hispanic Cultural Values

By Thomas Kochman - 06.10.2009

Many conservatives expressed strong concern at the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court, fearing her rulings will favor women or members of ethnic minority groups.  This concern is based on comments she made suggesting having lived as woman and Latina may give her an advantage in judgment in certain instances over a white male, for example, who has not lived that kind of life.

Some have even questioned whether that constitutes a personal bias and will affect her ability to effectively interpret the law or the Constitution. Wendy Long, a lawyer with the conservative Judicial Confirmation Network and a former law clerk to Justice Clarence Thomas, has criticized Sotomayor as a judge who believes \”one\’s sex, race and ethnicity ought to affect the decisions one renders.\”

Her supporters dismiss this concern citing among other things her dissenting opinion in the case Pappas vs. Giulani  in which she saw Pappas’ “anonymous dissemination of bigoted racist anti-black and anti-semitic materials” within the New York Police Department while “patently offensive, hateful, and insulting,” as nonetheless protected free speech under the First Amendment.

So much for Sotomayor’s personal life experience as a Latina getting in the way of supporting the Constitution. But the question she herself raised on how being a woman or a Latina might affect her decisions is still on the floor, not necessarily as a bias that works against her, but, as she put it, as “giving her an advantage.”

Those who have looked at Sotomayor’s case record to see where being Latina may have factored into her decisions say “Her appeals court decisions are generally narrow, and do not reveal any pattern reflecting Sotomayor\’s sex or ethnicity.\”

David Brooks writes in his op ed column, Cautious at Heart “Tom Goldstein of Scotusblog conducted a much-cited study of the 96 race-related cases that have come before her. Like almost all judges, she has rejected a vast majority of the claims of racial discrimination that came to her. She dissented from her colleagues in only four of those cases. And in only one of them did she find racial discrimination where they did not. Even with what she calls her “Latina soul,” she saw almost every case pretty much as they did.”

Georgetown University law professor Susan Low Bloch, who was a law clerk to Justice Marshall, says \”Sotomayor\’s background would more likely affect her colleagues\’ understanding of Hispanic life rather than cause distinctively different rulings.\”

Looking at Hispanic cultural values in general terms I know that personal loyalty ranks high and can sometimes be misplaced as it was with former Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez. As Jacob Sullum wrote “Looking back at Gonzales\’ years in Washington … we see a consistent pattern of doggedly pushing the expansion of presidential power, without regard to what Congress, the courts, or the Constitution might have to say on the subject.”

I have no reason to think that this would also be an issue for Sotomayor. Hispanics, culturally speaking, are also position and role driven, and if the role calls for independent judgment, as that of Appellate Judge — as Sotomayor has shown in her decisions in that position– then this aspect of her culture will also be a positive in the fulfillment of her role as Supreme Court Justice. Personal loyalty can also be expressed as a cultural value in other ways such as doing one’s job exceptionally well which in Hispanic culture, not only reflects directly upon Sotomayor’s individual ability but also more collectively –for Hispanics credit flows in all directions– upon the family that raised her and the judgments of the people: Robert Morgenthau, Patrick Moynihan, George H. W. Bush and now Barack Obama, that saw her ability and at key times helped move her career along.

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