Commentary: Sotomayor's comment indicates feelings of superiority

The Miami HeraldJune 2, 2009 

We may be about to see the nation's first Hispanic woman on the U.S. Supreme Court, and I'm told that, as a Hispanic woman, I should be feeling all giddy and fuzzy inside.

But it's just not happening for me.

Maybe it's because I don't do giddy and fuzzy any more than I do pink. Or perhaps it's my chronic reluctance to jump aboard ethnic bandwagons.

Don't get me wrong. I'm happy that others are happy, that they regard Sonia Sotomayor's nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court as an affirmation that a Hispanic woman can reach the highest pinnacles of achievement. But then I never thought otherwise.

And it's uplifting when people display pride in their heritage by cheering on one of their own – or by wearing an African head wrap, waving a Cuban flag, or dancing an Irish jig.

What worries me is when that pride turns into feelings of superiority, which is the insinuation in Sotomayor's now famous counter to Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's well-known assertion that wise old men and wise old women ultimately reach the same conclusions when deciding cases.

In disagreeing with O'Connor, the first woman on the U.S. Supreme Court, Sotomayor said: "I would hope 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."

The statement implies that the lives of one group of people are richer than those of another group, when in reality we're all limited by the bounds of our existence. We can certainly enrich our lives by being exposed to different cultures, listening to diverse ways of thinking and learning from the experiences of others.

But, in the end, we each have our own unique experiences; one as real as the other. A Latina's life, in general, is no richer than the life of a white male, or a black woman, or an Asian man; it's just different.

The richness comes in pulling together those experiences in order to achieve a collective wisdom. Ultimately, that is the beauty of a diversified Supreme Court.

So I rejoice not so much in the prospect of having a Hispanic woman added to the court, but simply in the enrichment a new, thoughtful voice can bring it. It could just as easily be the voice of a Native American or, yes, a white male.

But I'm not convinced it's the voice of Sonia Sotomayor. Not convinced because there's a time and place for cultural pride and a time when we must transcend our personal experiences. Sotomayor has indicated that she doesn't know the difference and, in so doing, she removes the blindfold from Lady Justice.

Should judges be required to strive to overcome their prejudices? Or should we simply accept – perhaps even embrace – those prejudices as a part of the legal fabric?

The answer is clear for O'Connor and New York federal judge Miriam Cedarbaum, who has said it is dangerous to presume that judging should be '"gender- or anything else-based." Sotomayor, instead, has questioned whether such an ideal is possible.

Yes, it's possible. It's just easier for some judges than for others.

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