The Initial Source of Those Remarks
In 2001, appeals court judge Sotomayer was invited to give the Judge Mario G. Olmos Memorial Lecture at the University of California Berkeley School of Law. From that 3,929-word lecture, 32 words encompassing her "wise Latina" remarks have been ripped from her insightful observation of racism and sexism in the U.S. judicial system.
Divorced from their proper whole, these 32 words are being twisted and held out as a baseless 'warning' against Sotomayor. Conservative pundits are hysterically waving them as a right-winged 'red flag' to anger, inflame, and incite hatred, all because of what Justice Sotomayor will bring to the Court if confirmed -- diversity amongst a largely white male body that does not reflect the face of the United States yet operates from an unassailable position of power.
The Social Justice Context
To understand the full import of Sotomayor's remarks, it's important to also understand the circumstances and expectations surrounding the speech in which she delivered them.
Sotomayer's lecture was given under the auspices of the University of California Berkeley Law School's Thelton E. Henderson Center for Social Justice, which sponsors ground-breaking conferences and symposia that bring together experts from around the country to discuss strategies for social change. According to the Berkeley Law website:
The Center hosts two annual lectures honoring distinguished alumni committed to social justice.Part of a Larger Picture
The fall symposium is host to the Mario G. Olmos Law and Cultural Diversity Memorial Lecture....established by friends, family and associates in memory of the late Judge Mario G. Olmos '71 to honor his commitment to social justice. The endowed lecture addresses issues of justice for people of diverse national, economic, racial and cultural backgrounds.
The following excerpt is drawn from the New York Times' reprint of Sotomayor's lecture (entitled "A Latina Judge's Voice") as published by the Spring 2002 issue of Berkeley La Raza Law Journal, a symposium issue entitled "Raising the Bar: Latino and Latina Presence in the Judiciary and the Struggle for Representation." Although it only touches on key points, it situates Sotomayer's "wise Latina" remarks (bolded below) in the context of the larger lecture and the broader discussion of race, gender and the judicial system:
I intend... to talk to you about my Latina identity, where it came from, and the influence I perceive it has on my presence on the bench....In the context of the lecture and the points being raised, Sotomayor's 32 words are not the Molotov cocktail of incendiary remarks that a select few would like the general public to believe they are.
Like many other immigrants to this great land, my parents came because of poverty and to attempt to find and secure a better life for themselves.... The Latina side of my identity was forged and closely nurtured by my family through our shared experiences and traditions....
America has a deeply confused image of itself that is in perpetual tension. We are a nation that takes pride in our ethnic diversity, recognizing its importance in shaping our society and in adding richness to its existence. Yet, we simultaneously insist that we can and must function and live in a race and color-blind way that ignore these very differences that in other contexts we laud....
When I finished law school in 1979, there were no women judges on the Supreme Court....There was then only one Afro-American Supreme Court Justice and then and now no Latino or Latina justices on our highest court....
[O]ne of my former colleagues on the Southern District bench, Judge Miriam Cederbaum....rightly points out that the perception of the differences between men and women is what led to many paternalistic laws and to the denial to women of the right to vote because we were described then "as not capable of reasoning or thinking logically" but instead of "acting intuitively."...
Judge Cedarbaum nevertheless believes that judges must transcend their personal sympathies and prejudices and aspire to achieve a greater degree of fairness and integrity based on the reason of law. Although I agree with...Judge Cedarbaum's aspiration, I wonder whether achieving that goal is possible in all or even in most cases.... whether by ignoring our differences as women or men of color we do a disservice both to the law and society.... I accept the thesis of... Professor Steven Carter of Yale Law School...that in any group of human beings there is a diversity of opinion because there is both a diversity of experiences and of thought....
[B]ecause I accept the proposition that, as [Yale Law School Professor Judith] Resnik describes it, "to judge is an exercise of power" and because as... 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....
Whether born from experience or inherent physiological or cultural differences...our gender and national origins may and will make a difference in our judging. Justice [Sandra Day] O'Connor has often been cited as saying that a wise old man and wise old woman will reach the same conclusion in deciding cases. I am not so sure....that I agree with the statement. First, as Professor Martha Minnow has noted, there can never be a universal definition of wise. Second, 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.
Let us not forget that wise men like Oliver Wendell Holmes and Justice Cardozo voted on cases which upheld both sex and race discrimination in our society. Until 1972, no Supreme Court case ever upheld the claim of a woman in a gender discrimination case. I, like Professor Carter, believe that 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.... As Judge Cedarbaum pointed out to me, nine white men on the Supreme Court in the past have done so on many occasions and on many issues including Brown [v. Board of Education.]
However, to understand takes time and effort, something that not all people are willing to give. For others, their experiences limit their ability to understand the experiences of others. Other simply do not care. Hence, one must accept the proposition that a difference there will be by the presence of women and people of color on the bench. 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.
Those opposing Sotomayor on principle, not on her solid credentials as a federal judge, cannot afford to alienate either women (a significant voting bloc for Obama) or Latinos (again, another significant voting bloc for Obama). By including a Hispanic justice on the Court and returning another female to the bench, the nation's highest court will better reflect a country in which women are the majority and a growing number of individuals no longer self-identify as one ethnicity but describe themselves as being from blended multi-racial backgrounds.
Framed By Experience
To chastise Sotomayor because she openly acknowledges that her gender and racial background create a framework in which her thinking is rooted -- and to ignore the reality that growing up white and male in the United States is another framework that provides a completely different experience -- is to live in a state of denial. The fact that Sotomayor is frank enough to state that her life circumstances led her to who she is today -- a Latina judge -- is a form of honesty that should be applauded, not censured.
Having gone through the process already for her two federal appointments, her confirmation is expected to go through. And that's why some quarters are screaming about the "wise Latina" comment. It's an example of "the pot calling the kettle black" to deflect us from the real issues at hand -- whether or not she possesses the legal credentials, experience and background to serve the nation's best interests.
From Street Crime Prosecution to Corporate Litigation
Her personal knowledge of a broad segment of the population, gleaned as a child of the projects of the Bronx, an Ivy league undergraduate and law school student, a Manhattan assistant district attorney, a corporate litigator, and a federal judge, gives her a breadth of experience that the other seated Justices cannot come close to claiming.
The Truth About Justice
Of course her decisions will be filtered through the lens of her racial background and her experiences as a woman. Just as the decisions made by Roberts, Scalia & Company have everything to do with their own backgrounds rich with privilege and free of discrimination. Though the robes they don are black, they see the world in color, perceive it through gender, and -- despite what they may say or aspire to -- judge accordingly. Anyone who says otherwise is not telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.