Much is being made of Judge Sonia Sotomayor's ethnicity and her ocassional comments about the role that her family background and cultural heritage play in her judicial practice. Heritage Shapes Judge's Perspective was the headline for a front-page piece about Judge Sotomayor in Wednesday's Washington Post, under a smaller topical heading entitled, Ethnic Identity. The article highlights her ethnic heritage and the influence it has had on her law career.
Question: who is the last white male to be nominated to the Supreme Court to have similar headlines written about his ethnic heritage, to have questions raised about the way his family or cultural background shape his judicial perspectives? We don't question the ethnic or family influences of a white male, but why not? Are we to believe that a white, male judge is not influenced by his upbringing in suburbia or private schools, that the manner in which he looks at the law and court cases is not influenced by his experience of being raised by parents who were college educated and well connected? Of course not!
Surely the cultural experience of being a white, upper class male shapes how someone looks at the law, just as the cultural experience of being a working class urban latina shapes how Judge Sotomayor might look at the law. But our society is confortable with the white male middle/upper class perspective on law and governance, and anxious perhaps about the perspective a Bronx-raised Latina might offer to the Court and our nation. Shame on us.
A Justice Sotomayor might (at times) see in the law in a different light than does a white male justice from a priveleged background. What makes some anxious (perhaps subconsciously) is that in some way Sotomayor may chip away at the white male hegemony over legal interpretation … that she may contribute in some way to a fresh and legitimate way of looking at the law, a way that appreciates that the law must serve the interests of Americans in the suburbs and the city, that the law must serve the daughters of recent immigrants just as much as it serves the daughters of the American Revolution. Messing with the status quo is never easy. But by naming someone whose life story is significantly different than the majority of Justices in the Court's history President Obama is doing precisely that – messing with the status quo. Good for him.
A legal system that is by the people and for the people can and should be interepreted by a panel of Justices that looks something like the diverse people it serves. Assuming that the members of that panel are highly qualified – and there is no doubt that Judge Sotomayor is qualified – we should be excited, not anxious, by the increasing diversity of the Court that serves "We the People."