Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Experience and Bias in Judges

As I listen to those on the far right side of the political spectrum play what few cards they have to counter Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor's experience and philosophy, I'm taken by how much is being made of her 2001 statement, "I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life."

No less than political dinosaur and serial philanderer Newt Gingrich has called Sotomayor a "reverse racist", because that's easier to do than to try to understand the sentiment behind her comments.

Newt probably doesn't have much experience in that area, given the plethora of white men from predominantly privileged backgrounds that make up most of the judiciary. Perhaps in Newt's eyes, if you've seen one rich white guy, you've seen them all. He's not quite sure what to do with a Latina from NYC.

We all have flavors of bias that come from our upbringing, family, and life experiences. To deny that such bias exists is foolhardy. We're a product of nature and nurture.
Judges have several tasks, but as Mark Thompson notes, ...judging, even on the appellate level, isn’t just about interpreting the law - it’s also about interpreting and understanding the facts of a given case and determining which facts are and are not relevant to a given interpretation of the law. In this arena, having a judiciary that is more in touch with the people they are judging is definitely important.

Getting judges with a variety of backgrounds and life experiences seems a much better way to ensure that the judiciary adequately mirrors the very people who stand in judgment. With so much at stake, relegating such power to a narrow band of social and cultural perspective seems antithetical to justice.

Many men and women have graduated from law school and passed the bar exam, and have had fine careers as lawyers and legal scholars. A smaller group has demonstrated the enhanced qualities needed for judicial excellence. Fewer still have ascended to our highest court.

Having a brilliant legal mind tempered with the background of Sotomayor seems to be the best of both worlds. Let's celebrate our differences and use them to enhance and protect a more perfect union.

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