Challenging our 'differences'

Everybody has a unique history, everybody brings beliefs and biases to their work, even the white Republican U.S. senators who have spent this week questioning the objectivity of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor.

But not everyone nominated to the Supreme Court has had to deny that their personal histories have any particular value or meaning to them as jurists. Only Sotomayor has had to do that.

Only Sotomayor has had to explain that although she is Hispanic and a woman she can be neutral in her judicial decision-making. Meanwhile, the whiteness and maleness of all the judicial nominees who came before her were never challenged, never even recognized, as part of their identities.

So when Samuel Alito Jr. spoke at length during his confirmation hearings about the impact of his background as the son of Italian immigrants on his rulings, the senators all nodded with acceptance and understanding. But many of those same senators would have leaped out of their chairs this week if Sotomayor had dared to suggest that her Puerto Rican family history could have any impact on her decision-making.

What's the difference? Some of it is the backlash to Sotomayor's unfortunate and one-time line that a "wise Latina woman" might reach better conclusions than white males without the same life experiences. Some of it is the minority party in Washington groping for something, anything, they can use to dent a nominee with a powerful record of judicial accomplishment.

But part of it is the lingering sense in this country that being white and male entitles a nominee to the presumption of neutrality and objectiveness, while being anything else — brown-skinned and female, for example — requires a promise that these "differences" won't show up in one's rulings.

Never mind that Sotomayor has a tremendous legal and academic record, that she was a talented prosecutor and litigator before she joined the federal bench 17 years ago. Over the years she's written hundreds of opinions that reveal no hints of bias or prejudicial decision-making. Yet she still must insist, again and again, that unlike Alito, and unlike most other nominees, that her life experience, her gender, her ethnicity, won't affect her rulings.

On Tuesday, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., demanded that Sotomayor explain a speech that she has given several times over the years, in which she says, "I willingly accept that we who judge must not deny the differences resulting from experience and heritage, but attempt ... continuously to judge when those opinions, sympathies and prejudices are appropriate."

If Chief Justice John Roberts, or any other white justice, had used those same words, would anyone find them objectionable? Did Senator Sessions have any concerns about Roberts' or Alito's sympathies and prejudices? Surely they have some. Why is it that personal experience and heritage suddenly become an issue when the nominee is a Hispanic woman?

Nomination hearings nearly always are strange, stunted events where nominees take pains not to say anything that might offend. But the Sotomayor hearings have been especially dry, dull and disappointing. This is the first time in memory — and we hope the last time ever — that a nominee for the highest court in the land has to remind senators that her gender and ethnicity, her personal experiences, her identity, are not weaknesses, but strengths.

— The Oregonian

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