Judging Words and Personal Experience

30 05 2009

Yesterday White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs called Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s remarks in a 2001 speech – that the right has dishonestly pounced on – a “poor choice words. ” Of course, its a predictable turn of events considering how much of the media does not do well with context and nuance. Plus, the White House probably wants her speech to be less of and less of an issue heading into the confirmation hearings. At any event, CNN.com has a great piece by Sherrilyn A. Ifill, a civil rights lawyer and law professor, explaining how the experiences of judges affect their approach to judicial decision-making.

Money quote:

Justice Thomas is the perfect example of how hard it can be for a judge to lay aside the personal experiences that shape his worldview. His views about the affirmative action cases that come before him are shaped quite clearly by what he regards as the self-sufficient dignity of his hard-working grandfather and the humiliation he says he felt when others believed his scholarly accomplishments were the result of affirmative action.

White judges are also shaped by their background and experiences. They needn’t ever speak of it, simply because their whiteness and gender insulates them from the presumption of partiality and bias that is regularly attached to women judges and judges of color when it comes to matters of race and gender.

Only a judge who is conscious and fully engaged with the reality of how her experiences may bear on her approach to the facts of a case, or sense of social justice, or vision of constitutional interpretation, should be entrusted to sit on the most influential and powerful court in our nation.

Too often we have allowed ourselves to be placated and charmed by fantasies about umpire judges calling “balls and strikes,” without ever asking which league the game is being played in or whether the umpire was standing in the best position to see the play. We forget that when deciding whether a batter checked his swing, the homeplate umpire will routinely ask for the alternative perspective from the first or third base umpire before calling a “swing and a miss” a strike.

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