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Commentary: Judge Sotomayor is not a racist

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  • Rob Schmidt
    http://www.cnn.com/2009/POLITICS/05/28/ifill.sotomayor/index.html?iref=werec ommend Commentary: Judge Sotomayor is not a racist By Sherrilyn A. Ifill Special
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 3, 2009
      http://www.cnn.com/2009/POLITICS/05/28/ifill.sotomayor/index.html?iref=werec
      ommend

      Commentary: Judge Sotomayor is not a racist

      By Sherrilyn A. Ifill
      Special to CNN

      Editor's note: Sherrilyn Ifill is a professor of law at the University of
      Maryland School of Law and a civil rights lawyer who specializes in voting
      rights and political participation. She is the author of "On the Courthouse
      Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the 21st Century," and is a
      regular contributor to The Root at http://www.theroot.com/.
      Sherrilyn Ifill says Sonia Sotomayor's speech was an honest effort to
      describe how judges rule on cases.

      (CNN) -- When Don Imus denigrated in clearly racist terms the championship
      women's basketball team from Rutgers University; when actor Michael Richards
      screamed at black guests in a comedy club, calling them the "n-word" and
      invoking the threat of lynching; when Trent Lott said that things would have
      been better if a southern segregationist had been elected president a
      half-century earlier, responsible white people from across the ideological
      spectrum stepped forward to explain that these individuals were not racist.

      The "R" word has become the taboo of the white world. By this I mean that
      calling someone racist is a taboo, not racism itself.

      So when Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich and several other conservative
      commentators call a sitting federal appeals court judge and Supreme Court
      nominee who happens to be Latina, a racist, it's time to push back. Real
      hard.

      The evidence offered in support of Judge Sonia Sotomayor's alleged racism is
      a speech she gave in Berkeley, California, in honor of Judge Mario G. Olmos,
      a former judge, community leader and graduate of Boalt Hall Law School who
      died an untimely death at the age of 43.

      The offending section of the speech is this: "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."
      This passage inspired Gingrich, former speaker of the House of
      Representatives and potential 2012 presidential candidate, to call Judge
      Sotomayor "a Latina racist."

      To lift one statement out of Judge Sotomayor's eight-page speech without
      examining the context and substance of her remarks, is an example of the
      kind of shoddy character assassination that I suspect will dominate this
      judicial confirmation process.

      Judge Sotomayor's speech is, in fact, an excellent meditation on how the
      experiences of judges might affect how they approach aspects of judicial
      decision-making. It explores the important, and too-little examined reality
      that judicial deliberations can be affected by a judge's background,
      perspective and experience.

      In the next sentence immediately following the passage above, Judge
      Sotomayor says, "Let us not forget that wise men like Oliver Wendell Holmes
      and Justice [Benjamin] Cardozo voted on cases which upheld both sex and race
      discrimination in our society."

      Could she have been referring to Buck v. Bell, the 1927 case in which
      Justice Holmes -- widely regarded as perhaps the most brilliant justice in
      the Supreme Court's history -- upheld the state's plan to sterilize Carrie
      Buck, an 18-year-old white woman, who was accused of being congenitally
      retarded. Buck's main crime seems to have been the fact that she'd had a
      child out of wedlock.

      In any case, Justice Holmes upheld the sterilization order, emphatically and
      coldly stating, "three generations of imbeciles is enough." Does anyone
      seriously believe that a woman, and especially a woman of color "with the
      richness of her experiences" would not have "reach[ed] a better conclusion "
      than that adopted by Justice Holmes in 1927?

      In fact Buck v. Bell is the perfect example of how a "wise old [white] man"
      got it wrong in a way that a woman judge or a racial minority most likely
      would not.

      It's worth pointing out that in that same speech Judge Sotomayor cautioned,
      "we should not be so myopic as to believe that others of different
      experiences or backgrounds are incapable of understanding the values and
      needs of people from a different group." But she acknowledges that "there
      may be some [difference in her judging] based on my gender and my Latina
      heritage."

      What Gingrich and others decry in Judge Sotomayor should be applauded. Judge
      Sotomayor has the humility to recognize the difficulty of achieving true and
      pure impartiality. Instead, as she pointed out in her speech, "[t]he
      aspiration to impartiality is just that -- it's an aspiration because it
      denies the fact that we are by our experiences making different choices than
      others."

      Unlike so many judges who by virtue of being white and male simply assume
      their impartiality, Judge Sotomayor recognizes that all judges are affected
      by their background and their life experiences.

      Ironically, it was Justice Cardozo who recognized this when he said, "[t]he
      great tides and currents which engulf the rest of men, do not turn aside in
      their course, and pass the judge by." Justice Cardozo concluded that "[n]o
      effort or revolution of the mind will overthrow utterly and at all times the
      empire of ... [a judge's] subconscious loyalties.

      These are the realities of judicial decision-making evoked by Judge
      Sotomayor's speech. It's perhaps easier to say as [then-Supreme Court
      nominee] Clarence Thomas so famously did, that a judge can simply, "strip
      down like a runner," and become utterly impartial simply by putting on a
      black robe. But it is more honest to acknowledge that regardless of race,
      gender, ideology or professional background, impartiality is always a
      work-in-progress for judges.

      Even Judge Richard Posner, a conservative stalwart on the 7th Circuit Court
      of Appeals once observed that, "Litigation commonly involves persons at
      different social distances form the judge, and the more proximate will
      garner the more sympathetic response regardless of actual desert."

      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.

      Judge Sotomayor rightly suggests that these things matter. She notes in her
      speech that "personal experiences affect the facts that judges choose to
      see." She should know this. She's been a trial judge. None of the other
      justices who will serve with Judge Sotomayor will have had that experience.

      Judge Sotomayor's speech is one of the most honest and compelling statements
      about judicial impartiality we're likely to hear from a judge of her
      stature.

      It ends with this humble observation:

      "Each day on the bench I learn something new about the judicial process and
      about being a professional Latina woman in a world that sometimes looks at
      me with suspicion. I am reminded each day that I render decisions that
      affect people concretely and that I owe them constant and complete vigilance
      in checking my assumptions, presumptions and perspectives and ensuring that
      to the extent that my limited abilities and capabilities permit me, that I
      re-evaluate them and change as circumstances and cases before me requires. I
      can and do aspire to be greater than the sum total of my experiences, but I
      accept my limitations. I willingly accept that we who judge must not deny
      the differences resulting from experience and heritage but attempt, as the
      Supreme Court suggests, continuously to judge when those opinions,
      sympathies and prejudices are appropriate."

      It's entirely appropriate to question Judge Sotomayor about this speech at
      her confirmation hearings. She is evidently more than capable of explaining
      in compelling, clear language what precisely she wanted to convey in this
      speech. But Judge Sotomayor is not a racist.

      It is an insult of unimaginable proportion to unleash this charge on her,
      based on one sentence from her Berkeley, California, speech. It is not just
      irresponsible to make this charge against a sitting federal appeals court
      judge based on this flimsy record; it is -- and here I'll break the taboo --
      racist to do so.

      The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Sherrilyn
      Ifill.
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