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. Read more »

Ethnicity and the Supreme Court

By Thomas Kochman - 06.16.2009

In a post late last week, I explored the question of how Sonia Sotomayor’s ethnicity might influence her judgments or the judgments of other members of the Supreme Court if she is confirmed. It got me thinking more about Thurgood Marshall and his time on the nation’s highest court, and the role his ethnicity played in his judgements.

In addition to the social perspective Marshall brought to the Court, what was also telling, but less obvious, was the cultural perspective he brought as an African American to deliberations. The case where this played out most clearly was  Rankin vs. McPherson.  I have some familiarity with this case because I was called upon to testify as an expert witness on behalf of McPherson in one of the earlier trials. Read more »

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. Read more »

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. Read more »