Thursday, May 28, 2009

Everybody Brings Background and Experiences

So God created human beings in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. Genesis 1:27

Just to set the record straight, the Creator did not begin with a generic white male and then decide to get really creative and diversify. Even if you conclude that God created a male first (and not simply a human), that male was not a generic white American man. But the architects of the American experience WERE a bunch of white males (even though the nation was built on the backs of an extremely diverse populous), and, until 1967, ALL of our Supreme Court justices were white males (you knew that, right?).

So in 2001, Latina Judge Sonia Sotomayor, now the nominee to the Supreme Court, gave a speech to a Hispanic law group in which she explicated and defended the obvious: judges bring their experiences and backgrounds into the courtroom. One line out of the 8 pages (12-pt type, Times Roman) has made the rounds in the blogosphere. Once again a single line is taken out of context. One need only read or hear the whole speech to get the truth of it. But to be fair to her critics, this one line is ill-crafted. I don’t believe the judge meant precisely what she said (this was a speech, not a law brief). Still, the real problem with the statement is that it begins the same place her critics begin: with the presumption that everyone except white males has relevant backgrounds and experiences.

But the problem her critics present is that the judge admits to bringing her background and experiences into the courtroom. I can almost imagine the bathroom meetings “What’s worse is she seems downright proud about bringing her experiences into the courtroom! This is what’s wrong with having a woman or a non-white on the court: they insist on bringing that non-white non-male stuff with them. Why can’t they be generic like all of the tried and true white male judges of yore? Damn the Sixties! Now we have black people, women, and brown people all wanting a piece of the pie.”

Don’t worry, George Will, Rush Limbaugh, Tucker Carlson, Richard Land, WSJ and all you other complainers; white men are still allowed to bring their background and experience to the bench too, as they have done virtually exclusively for over 200 years. But somehow we’ve pretended that the white males are devoid of background and experience. And they pretend that they argue purely the law. They delude themselves.

BTW, if Judge Sotomayor becomes Justice Sotomayor, she doesn’t bring only the Latina experience and background. She brings the Sonia Sotomayor experience and background. Still with her confirmation, the court will reflect a bit more of the actual diversity of the American people than it ever has. And if Sonia Sotomayor is confirmed, white males with their background and experiences still maintain a massive dominance on the Supreme Court.

But we must begin to acknowledge: there is no such thing as a generic justice, a generic American, or a generic person. And whether we acknowledge it or not, our backgrounds and experiences go with us wherever we go.

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