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 »

Cultural Values and Sotomayor’s Success

By Thomas Kochman - 06.02.2009

All eyes turned toward Sonia Sotomayor as she became President Obama’s nominee for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court this week.  If confirmed she will replace retiring Justice David Souter, become the first Hispanic Justice, and only the third woman to serve on the nation’s highest court.

Her nomination is historic and has me reflecting on the many conversations Jean and I have had over the years with Hispanic women who have reached high levels in U.S. companies about the level of effort it took to accomplish that given family pressures to just take on the traditional wife/mother role.

The cultural underpinnings of this family conflict are parental and cultural role expectations on one side of the equation vs. individual free choice on the other.  We also hear about Hispanic parents who initially resisted the career choices of their daughters returning to embrace them later. Driving that reunion is the Hispanic cultural pattern and collective value: “one for all and all for one” which allows both individuals and the extended family/community to reach out in support of each other. Read more »

Individual vs. Member of a Group

By Thomas Kochman - 06.02.2009

One of the hurdles that Sonia Sotomayor has to contend with as a Latina, is the view that makes individual qualifications suspect to the extent that ethnicity and gender were factors in her selection. Characterizing her nomination as an “affirmative action pick” as Pat Buchanan did on MSNBC does just that.

The problem with this view is that it has become near impossible in the larger society for anyone other than a white man to be seen first and foremost as an individual and not first and foremost as a member of a race, gender, or ethnic group. So even if a white woman or person of color were best qualified for a position the fact that they are primarily seen as members of a group inevitably calls their individual qualifications into question. Read more »