Talking Cultural Diversity

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

Sonia Sotomayor and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

By Thomas Kochman - 07.14.2009

The present vetting of Sotomayor as a prospective Supreme Court Justice brings to the foreground once again a matter we addressed in the blog Sotomayor and Hispanic Cultural Values , a comment Sotomayor made in a 2001 speech to a group of Hispanics that a “wise Latina woman with the richness of her experience would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn\’t lived that life.\”

Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said some of Sotomayor’s statements suggest she could deliver prejudicial opinions. “Call it empathy, call it prejudice or call it sympathy, but whatever it is, it’s not law,” he said. “In truth, it’s more akin to politics, and politics has no place in the courtroom.” 

The proposition that one kind of life experience offers a “better” vantage point or perspective than another is open to debate. Much less disputable is that the perspectives judges  have, the decisions they make and the conclusions they come to, grow directly out of their life experiences, not simply as individuals, but as members of distinctive social or cultural groups. 

The interview that Emily Bazelon had with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg called The Place of Women on the Court in the NY Times July 7, 2009 speaks directly to this point. What is relevant and revealing were Justice Ginsburg’s insights on the different perspectives and sensibilities that men and women brought to the court that were specific to their gender as men and women.

Some rulings that Justice Ginsburg attributes to the presence of women on the bench were making it possible “for the courts to appreciate earlier than they might otherwise that sexual harassment belongs under Title VII [as a violation of civil rights law],” but also what the presence of men on the bench meant in the recent ruling about the case involving the strip search, in school, of 13-year-old Savana Redding?  As Ginsburg said, “Maybe a 13-year-old girl is different from a 13-year-old boy in terms of how humiliating it is to be seen undressed. I think many of [the male justices] first thought of their own reaction. It came out in various questions. You change your clothes in the gym, what’s the big deal?”

Likewise, in the case Nguyen v. INS, in which the court in 2001 upheld, by 5 to 4, a law that set different requirements for a child to become a citizen, depending on whether his citizenship rights came from his unmarried mother or his unmarried father. Justice Ginsburg noted, “The majority thought there was something about the link between a mother and a child that doesn’t exist between the father and a child. But in fact the child in the case had been brought up by his father. They were held back by a way of looking at the world in which a man who wasn’t married simply was not responsible.”

Again, in Gonzales v. Carhart, the case in which the court upheld a law banning so-called partial-birth abortion, Justice Kennedy in his opinion for the majority characterized women as “regretting the choice to have an abortion, and then talked about how they need to be shielded from knowing the specifics of what they’d done” which Ginsburg saw as an “antique” example of [men on] “the court not seeing women as fully autonomous.”

Could members of different groups have life experiences like members of other groups? Of course! But it takes a special kind of individual to venture outside the comfort zone of their own social and cultural group to do that. For example, how many white men in the U.S. have experienced what it’s like to be in the minority? Some have, not doubt, and those white men I talk to about that not only remember that experience but how it has also shaped them to see things differently.  Does that give them a “better” perspective or simply a “different” one? I would argue, insofar as it is value added, “better”.

What do you think?

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