Sonia Sotomayor at Princeton in the early 1970′s.
Not that these two things ever directly interacted, to the best of my knowledge–but I found myself musing on the latter while reading this article about the former this morning.
Way back in 2006, when the Duke Lacrosse case hit the fan and subsequently spread outwards into the media, I was coming to the end of a period of a year or two where I’d been fairly active posting on an MRA (men’s rights activists) message board. What the heck was I doing there, you might ask..? No, I wasn’t trolling, thank you!–I had simply encountered a few of them on another message board, a feminist message board, that I had been posting on since 2002 or so, and having never heard of any such animal, I was quite interested in the meaning of their existence and what on earth they thought they stood for. I mean, men’s rights activists? Did I miss the period in history where the gender male was actively and specifically legislated against..? The best notion I could come up with on my own was that they objected to Selective Service registration. (As it turns out, that’s not something most of them care very much about, though it does come up periodically.) One of the MRAs on the feminist message board, upon discovering my interest, invited me to an MRA message board that he participated on–I followed him over, and spent the next two years being enlightened on the subject.
At any rate, as one of the very few (I believe only, at that time) resident feminists on the board, I was immediately harassed for my opinion on the case. My opinion was that I didn’t have one–I had no details other than the bare minimum, that a woman of color working as as stripper had accused one or more members of the Duke university lacrosse team of raping her. I had no knowledge of the truth or lack thereof of the accusations, the denials, the claims of evidence, or anything at all, really. My opinion was that that’s what we have a police force and a judicial system for.
But, you know, I was a feminist! And the definition of feminist is woman who instantly believes every word that ever comes out of any woman’s mouth on any subject whatsoever if the persons disputing that word are men, right? …well, no. I am a feminist, and happy to acknowledge that, but I will point you to the dictionary for the definition of that word and subsequently, the definition of what I, a feminist, am.
I was reminded of all this when I read this excerpt from today’s LA Times article, called The Two Sides of Sonia Sotomayor:
After Princeton, at Yale Law School, as a prosecutor and a corporate lawyer in New York, and while serving as a federal judge for 17 years, Sotomayor continued to display a passion for minority rights. She was active on the board of directors of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund when it sued New York City over alleged discrimination in police hiring and the drawing of voting districts, as well as when it challenged New York state’s death penalty law.
Eight years ago, while sitting on the federal appeals court in New York on which she still serves, Sotomayor said it was “shocking” that there were not more minority women on the federal bench.
But little of that activist sentiment is revealed in the hundreds of cases Sotomayor has decided in her 11 years on the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, raising the question of which jurist will present herself if she is given the lifetime tenure and complete independence of a Supreme Court seat.
Thomas Goldstein, a Washington lawyer with a Supreme Court specialty, said last week that he had reviewed 50 appeals involving race in which Sotomayor participated. In 45 of those cases, a three-judge panel rejected the discrimination claim — and Sotomayor never once dissented, he said.
“This is a judge who does not see it as her job to fix all the social ills in the world,” said Kevin Russell, a Washington appellate lawyer who also has analyzed Sotomayor’s opinions.
But in her 1974 letter to the student newspaper–
Whoa, horsies! In the letter she wrote…35 years ago, when she was nineteen years old..? This has, excuse me, what relevance to her today? What were you doing when you were nineteen years old, and for your sake I hope it isn’t really a good and accurate snapshot of your activities now in your mid-fifties..?
But beyond the patent absurdity of such a side-by-side comparison, the deeper issue that I find unpleasant to see as such a widespread issue is that it is not possible to have philosophical beliefs in general and yet be unable to reason logically in any given specific situation. I’m not sure if this is a sexist or racist issue–is it impossible for people to believe that a woman, or a person of color, can be rational about any issue that even remotely touches on gender or race? However, I’m inclined to think it isn’t even that–I’m inclined to think that it is a human issue, because most people find themselves quite unable to formulate a rational, logical opinion on a specific incident that touches closely upon any general philosophical belief that they hold. And because they themselves can’t do it, they both assume that nobody else can, either, and they are subsequently terrified of anyone whose philosophical beliefs don’t agree with their own having any position of power or arbitration whatsoever in their society.
There’s certainly a great deal of evidence for this. Witness the unending struggle in multiple school districts to essentially ban the accurate teaching of the academic subject biology by people who are passionately committed to a religion with a creation story, for instance. And, to present another and more pertinent to this post example, witness the large number of self-professed feminists who quite eagerly first convicted the Duke lacrosse players without knowing a single fact of the case and then, as more facts did come to light, went even further off the deep end by simply flatly denying they could be true, at all. So, clearly many people, indeed, cannot function rationally if the situation in question touches upon their personal philosophical beliefs.
But really, I think it’s amazing to make a general assumption that just because you can’t do it, nobody can. History also abounds with examples of people who can do so and have done so. Harking back to the the evolution vs. creation debacle, most scientists do have spiritual beliefs of some description, and still function quite successfully in their work in unlocking the secrets of life on earth. Interestingly enough, though, these same scientist are far less likely than the general population to hold fundamentalist spiritual beliefs–ie, their belief system is specifically flexible. It seems reasonable to suppose that people in the judicial profession are similarly less likely to hold fundamentalist-style beliefs–or they wouldn’t be in such a profession in the first place, where the search for the genuine and accurate truth of any given situation regardless of preconceived notions is a core part of the profession.
Sonia Sotomayor, from her judicial record, would appear to be a person whose philosophical beliefs do not unduly influence her rational judgement. Will she be credited for that, or is that simply too impossible for those who are hopelessly enslaved to their own dogma to swallow? It’ll be interesting to watch the progress of her confirmation.