Is Justice Truly Blind? Judge Sonia Sotomayor and Standpoint Perspective
President Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court, Judge Sonia Sotomayor of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, was born to parents who emigrated from Puerto Rico and lived in a housing project in the Bronx. Judge Sotomayor became a summa cum laude Princeton graduate, alum of Yale Law School, and former editor of the Yale Law Journal. Judge Sotomayor has gained lots of publicity not because of her nomination alone, or the fact that she is the first Hispanic nominated to this position, (and, if confirmed, she would be only the third woman on the Supreme Court) but because of two other reasons.
First, in a 2001 speech she gave at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law she said, “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.” Second, Judge Sotomayor was on a bench that upheld a lower court decision that allowed the city of New Haven, Connecticut to throw out promotion test results that seemed to favor white over minority firefighters. This ruling has been overturned.
Debate surrounding Judge Sotomayor’s nomination have highlighted two perspectives. One, that seems to be the view of the judge herself and the other encapsulated by the opening remarks of Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions at the confirmation hearings. The first perspective can be examined by looking at Judge Sotomayor’s 2001 talk, responding to the notion that judges must “transcend” their “personal sympathies” in which she said:
I wonder whether achieving that goal is possible in all or even in most cases… I accept the thesis of a law school classmate, Professor Steven Carter of Yale Law School, in his affirmative action book that in any group of human beings there is a diversity of opinion because there is both a diversity of experiences and of thought. Thus, as noted by …Professor Judith Resnik … there is not a single voice of feminism, not a feminist approach but many who are exploring the possible ways of being that are distinct from those structured in a world dominated by the power and words of men.
That same point can be made with respect to people of color. No one person, judge or nominee will speak in a female or people of color voice. I need not remind you that Justice Clarence Thomas represents a part but not the whole of African-American thought on many subjects. Yet, because I accept the proposition that, as Judge Resnik describes it, "to judge is an exercise of power" and because as, another former law school classmate, Professor Martha Minnow of Harvard Law School, states "there is no objective stance but only a series of perspectives - no neutrality, no escape from choice in judging," I further accept that our experiences as women and people of color affect our decisions. The 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.
…Judge Cedarbaum has pointed out to me that seminal decisions in race and sex discrimination cases have come from Supreme Courts composed exclusively of white males. I agree that this is significant but I also choose to emphasize that the people who argued those cases before the Supreme Court which changed the legal landscape ultimately were largely people of color and women…
Personal experiences affect the facts that judges choose to see. My hope is that I will take the good from my experiences and extrapolate them further into areas with which I am unfamiliar. I simply do not know exactly what that difference will be in my judging. But I accept there will be some based on my gender and my Latina heritage.
A highly contrasting view is offered by Senator Sessions.
Note that Senator Sessions says:
I believe our legal system is at a dangerous crossroads. Down one path is the traditional American legal system, so admired around the world, where judges impartially apply the law to the facts without regard to their own personal views. This is the compassionate system because this is the fair system…Down the other path lies a Brave New World where words have no true meaning and judges are free to decide what facts they choose to see…I will not vote for—no senator should vote for—an individual nominated by any President who is not fully committed to fairness and impartiality towards every person who appears before them. I will not vote for—no senator should vote for—an individual nominated by any President who believes it is acceptable for a judge to allow their own personal background, gender, prejudices, or sympathies to sway their decision in favor of, or against, parties before the court.
My personal and professional experiences tell me that although our race/class/gender may not define us—and that may be debatable—it’s hard to deny these do influence us. And that’s not only true for those of us who—like Judge Sotomayor—are of a “different” race/class/gender. What do you think? And what evidence do you have one way or another? Do you think that our backgrounds shape us? Influence us? What aspects of our life do you think continue to impact us, even as adults? Race? Class? Gender?
These are three of the “biggies” that sociologists study. In fact, studies related to gender and race and even academic departments devoted to studying these areas have given us a deep understanding about how race, gender, and class impact our lives. For example, there’s a 2001 study on hiring discrimination which shows that white men with felony convictions receive job offers ahead of black men without criminal histories. Research indicates that being black, male, and of low education and income is related to longer prison sentences. There is the discrepancy in crack/cocaine sentencing. The Judge Sotomayor’s hearings brought my attention to two studies that found that women on state supreme courts and on the appellate benches—more so than men on these courts—tend to uphold women’s claims in cases of sexual discrimination and defendants’ claims in search and seizure cases. Stated differently, men on these courts are less likely to uphold women’s claims in cases of sexual discrimination and defendants’ claims in search and seizure cases. I restated the findings of the studies to highlight that gender influenced male and female judges.
Africana Studies departments, Asian Studies Departments and Women’s Studies departments were at least in part created because these subjects are worthy of study and had historically been excluded from the academy. With the introduction of race, class, and gender studies social scientists started to pay more attention to the person of researchers: their race, class, and gender, for example. We thought about the ways in which what we know had been shaped by the race, class, and gender of those who brought us this knowledge. Does experiencing oppression, for example, provide its recipients with a particular vision? How about growing up with abundance or opulence? In her classic book, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, sociologist Patricia Hill Collins talks about the “shared angle of vision” of black women. These ideas are relevant to standpoint theory—simply, the idea that what we see/know/attend to is influenced by our group membership.
In her confirmation hearing Judge Sotomayor responded to concern about her “wise Latina" comment:
I want to state up front, unequivocally and without doubt, I do not believe that any ethnic, racial or gender group has an advantage in sound judging. I do believe that every person has an equal opportunity to be a good and wise judge regardless of their background or life experiences… I think the system is strengthened when judges don't assume they're impartial, but when judges test themselves to identify when their emotions are driving a result, or their experience are driving a result and the law is not.
Although Judge Sotomayor’s nomination hearings frame it that way, the central issue at hand is not whether one perspective advocates being impartial based on personal characteristics while the other promotes impartiality. One perspectives takes as a given that our personal background and perspective matters, while the other says it does not.