Friday, May 29, 2009

Judging a life experience with pigs!

Well, since I take care of four charming Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs at the petting zoo, I like to read about swine. And of course, I also enjoy reading about the law. So when I read something that incorporates pigs AND the law I'm in--dare I say it--hog heaven!

Now have a look at these comments:

"My Latina identity also includes, because of my particularly adventurous taste buds, morcilla, -- pig intestines, patitas de cerdo con garbanzo -- pigs' feet with beans, and la lengua y orejas de cuchifrito, pigs' tongue and ears... You can tell that I have been very well educated. That antiseptic description however, does not really explain the appeal of morcilla - pig's intestine - to an American born child."

Sooey! That's a lot of references to pigs. And I don't mind that it's all about eating them; even though I love my four pot-bellies I admit I also like pepperoni on my pizza.

So who is the person giving this porcine culinary lecture? Why, its Supreme Court nominee Sonya Sotomayor! It's the same speech she gave for which some are now hammering her for racism. (Two of my pot-bellied pigs are pink and two are black, but I love them all equally.)

Thanks to the New York Times--and God, I hate having to say that--we can peruse the Judge's controversial oration in its entirety. I keep hearing news reports on TV where Sotomayor is quoted as saying "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 is usually followed by the observation that Mr. Limbaugh and Mr. Gingrich are apoplectic about these words, howling that they are racist, but then nobody says anything about the context of the remarks.

Well, since Judge Sotomayor said something about pigs in the speech, I figured I owed it to my four swine to carefully examine her remarks.

Before I try to deconstruct the comment getting all the airplay, let me point out that the Judge said something else that one could, if one desired, argue is far more racist than the "wise Latina woman" remark. Earlier in the speech, she declared:

"Let us not forget that between the appointments of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor in 1981 and Justice Ginsburg in 1992, eleven years passed. Similarly, between Justice Kaye's initial appointment as an Associate Judge to the New York Court of Appeals in 1983, and Justice Ciparick's appointment in 1993, ten years elapsed. Almost nine years later, we are waiting for a third appointment of a woman to both the Supreme Court and the New York Court of Appeals and of a second minority, male or female, preferably Hispanic, to the Supreme Court."

The emphasis is mine. It's one thing to advocate a second minority Justice on the Supreme Court; it's quite another to say that it would be better for that Justice to be Hispanic as opposed to Asian American, Indian American, or Native American. Isn't it a little bit offensive to suggest that minorities who aren't African American or Hispanic have to stand in line behind those two groups?

Now on to the "wise Latina woman" remark, in context:

"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."

First, a bit of that nitpicking I'm infamous for. Sotomayor flubbed the date. The first Supreme Court case upholding a woman's claim in a gender discrimination case, Reed v. Reed occurred in 1971, not 1972.

No need to dwell on that; let's get to the main issue at hand. First, notice the rather apologetic, qualifying manner the Judge use to phrase the sentence that gets pulled out of that paragraph. She doesn't say "Wise Latina women will always make a sounder judgment than a white male;" she opines that she "would hope" that a wise Latina woman would outdo a white male "more often than not." An English stylist might take exception with her for expressing her thought in a timid fashion.

Second, just two sentences later the Judge admitted what she'd just said wasn't necessarily true. She said it's "myopic" to think a judge can't make the right call if he's not of the demographic group affected, citing Brown v. Board of Education as an instance where nine white guys did the right thing and told America to stop sending black children to inferior schools.

I just can't view Sotomayor's "wise Latina woman" comment as racist when she, in effect, took it back five seconds later.

Another little thing--it's notable that Sotomayor mentioned Benjamin Cardozo, because the first sentence of the excerpt above is very similar to something this famous judge wrote. Note first what Sotomayor said: "Whether born from experience or inherent physiological or cultural differences... our gender and national origins may and will make a difference in our judging." She's been getting a lot of flak about that from those appalled at the idea that a judge's personal background and experiences will factor into their opinion writing.

But her sentiments are nothing new. Here's what Cardozo had to say in 1921:

"Deep below consciousness are other forces, the likes and the dislikes, the predilections and the prejudices, the complex of instincts and emotions and habits and convictions, which make the man, whether he be litigant or judge... There has been a certain lack of candor in much of the discussion of the theme, or rather perhaps in the refusal to discuss it, as if judges must lose respect and confidence by the reminder that they are subject to human limitations... The great tides and currents which engulf the rest of men do not turn aside in their course and pass the judges by." (The Nature of the Judicial Process, pp. 167-168.)

I think Cardozo expressed the matter with a lot more verve than Sotomayor did--then again, I'm another white male--but the point is that it's silly for anybody to become indignant at the idea of judges being affected by their life experiences when almost a century ago one of the greats of the High Court admitted that this happens.

So I guess I'm defending Sotomayor a bit, and by extension President Obama for choosing her. But I'm not very impressed with Sotomayor's Berkeley speech. She rails on and on about what she wants for the demographic groups to which she belongs--women and Hispanics. That's her right, but far more inspiring to me is something the first minority Supreme Court Justice--Thurgood Marshall--said in 1958 as he stood before the Court he'd later serve on. The case was Cooper v. Aaron, a matter arising from the bitter controversy in Little Rock after the city was ordered to integrate its schools. Marshall faced Earl Warren and the other Justices and declared:

"Education is not the teaching of the three R's. Education is the teaching of the overall citizenship, to learn to live together with fellow citizens, and above all to learn to obey the law...

"I am not worried about the Negro children at this stage. I don't believe they're in this case as such. I worry about the white children in Little Rock who are told, as young people, that the way to get your rights is to violate the law and defy the lawful authorities. I'm worried about their future." (Quoted in Irons and Guitton, eds., May It Please the Court, 1993, p. 254.)

Exhibit A why Marshall was a brilliant man. Rather than pleading over and over about what the anger and lawlessness in Arkansas was doing to African-American children--which as a black man himself he might have been expected to do--Marshall cogently reminded the Justices of the negative effects the Little Rock situation was having on people outside his personal demographic group. That just seems more exalting to me than Sotomayor's dry listing of which circuit courts don't have a Hispanic judge.

Let me close this as I began, by talking about pigs, as Sotomayor did in a portion of her speech. She has eaten all sorts of pork dishes, but I don't know if she has ever taken care of live pigs as I have. But even if the judge has not done so, by virtue of her training she would still be far more competent than me to rule on a disputed contract involving the sale of four Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs. My training in swine husbandry does not trump her training in law. And so even though I've had life experiences caring for swine, that doesn't give me a special insight about a contract involving pigs.

Life experiences--whether you are a wise Latina woman or a blogging pig caretaker--can only get you so far.

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