In Context, Sotomayor’s ‘Wise Latina’ Remark Is Hardly Shocking
The endlessly repeated remark that Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor made in speeches and law review articles that she “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” is an odd one, if you take it out of context. And Sen. Jon Kyl’s (R-Ariz.) grilling today didn’t exactly illuminate it. He proceeded to quote long passages from her 2001 Berkeley speech, but even citing the quote in the context of just a few lines from the speech really doesn’t help.
So I went back to the speech today to see what exactly she did mean by that remark, which she now admits was “a bad idea.” And in context — of the speech, who she was talking to and the academic theorists she was citing — it makes a lot of sense.
Here’s the statement in the context of a few paragraphs:
Whether born from experience or inherent physiological or cultural differences, a possibility I abhor less or discount less than my colleague Judge Cedarbaum, our gender and national origins may and will make a difference in our judging. Justice 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 Justice O’Connor is the author of that line since Professor Resnik attributes that line to Supreme Court Justice Coyle. I am also 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. Many are so capable. 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.
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.
For anyone who truly wants to understand where Judge Sotomayor is coming from — even based purely on her speeches, as her Republican critics keep saying they want to take seriously — it’s worth reading the entire speech from start to finish.
Here it is.