Talking Cultural Diversity

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

Sonia Sotomayor and Thurgood Marshall

By Thomas Kochman - 06.12.2009

It didn’t take long for parallels to be drawn between Sonia Sotomayor , Clarence Thomas,Thurgood Marshall, and even Sandra Day O’Conner, the first woman to sit on the Supreme Court.  Some say she’s nothing like Thomas or Marshall, while others hope that like Marshall, Sotomayor will draw upon her life experience to bring empathy once again to Supreme Court deliberations.

Sotomayor has advanced the notion that her life experience as a Latina could give her an advantage in judgment. Those familiar with her work however suggest that her decisions as a federal judge have been generally narrow and have not shown any pattern favoring women or ethnic minorities. Backers including Harvard University\’s Martha Minow say she hews to the facts and law of a case.

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

This last comment by Bloch is intriguing, not so much for what it says about the affect Sotomayor’s gender, ethnicity and life experience are likely to have on court deliberations, since that still remains to be seen, but for what it also says about Marshall.

What is established and on the record about Marshall is the connection between his life experience and the cases he took on both before and after becoming a Supreme Court Justice. Justice Marshall is known for having supported Americans who traditionally had no voice.

When Marshall dissented from a 1973 decision upholding a $50 bankruptcy fee, he wrote, \”No one who has had close contact with poor people can fail to understand how close to the margin of survival many of them are.\”

If confirmed we will all be waiting to see what role Sotomayor’s cultural background will play in not only her judgments, but the in the judgments of the other justices who will have the benefit of her perspective.  Will she be like Marshall?  What are your thoughts?

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