NY Times, Wash. Post advance "wise Latina" distortion

››› ››› JULIE MILLICAN

The New York Times and The Washington Post reported Republican distortion of Judge Sonia Sotomayor's "wise Latina" comments without providing the context for them.

In July 13 articles on the start of Judge Sonia Sotomayor's Supreme Court confirmation hearings, both The New York Times and The Washington Post reported Republican distortions of Sotomayor's "wise Latina" comments without providing the context for her remarks. As Media Matters for America has repeatedly noted, when Sotomayor made the "wise Latina" comment, she was specifically discussing the importance of judicial diversity in determining "race and sex discrimination cases." Additionally, conservatives, including Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, have each acknowledged the significant impact their background and personal experiences have had on their judicial thinking.

The Times reported that "[Sen. Jeff] Sessions [R-AL] pointed to what he called Judge Sotomayor's advocacy positions and to her widely publicized remark that a 'wise Latina woman' would make better judicial decisions than a white man." Similarly, the Post reported that Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) "made clear the Republicans will seize on her comments that a 'wise Latina' would come to a better conclusion than a white man."

In fact, contrary to the suggestion that Sotomayor was commenting on the general judicial ability of Latinas and white men, in the various speeches in which Sotomayor discussed "wise Latina[s]," Sotomayor was talking specifically about "race and sex discrimination cases." For instance, from Sotomayor's 2001 speech, delivered at the University of California-Berkeley School of Law and published in 2002 in the Berkeley La Raza Law Journal:

In our private conversations, Judge [Miriam] Cedarbaum has pointed out to me that seminal decisions in race and sex discrimination cases have come from Supreme Courts composed exclusively of white males. I agree that this is significant but I also choose to emphasize that the people who argued those cases before the Supreme Court which changed the legal landscape ultimately were largely people of color and women. I recall that Justice Thurgood Marshall, Judge Connie Baker Motley, the first black woman appointed to the federal bench, and others of the NAACP argued Brown v. Board of Education. Similarly, Justice [Ruth Bader] Ginsburg, with other women attorneys, was instrumental in advocating and convincing the Court that equality of work required equality in terms and conditions of employment.

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 [Sandra Day] 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 [Benjamin] 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.

However, to understand takes time and effort, something that not all people are willing to give. For others, their experiences limit their ability to understand the experiences of others. Other simply do not care. Hence, one must accept the proposition that a difference there will be by the presence of women and people of color on the bench. Personal experiences affect the facts that judges choose to see.

Sotomayor delivered nearly identical remarks in at least four different speeches from 1994 to 2003.

Furthermore, during his 2006 confirmation hearing, Alito asserted: "When I get a case about discrimination, I have to think about people in my own family who suffered discrimination because of their ethnic background or because of religion or because of gender. And I do take that into account." During Thomas' confirmation hearing, Sen. Herb Kohl (D-WI) asked, "I'd like to ask you why you want this job?" Thomas replied in part: "I believe, Senator, that I can make a contribution, that I can bring something different to the Court, that I can walk in the shoes of the people who are affected by what the Court does."

As Media Matters has noted, the Post has repeatedly omitted the context for Sotomayor's "wise Latina" remarks, despite reporting the White House's response that her comments are being taken out of context.

From the July 13 New York Times article, "G.O.P. Set to Question Judge's Impartiality":

Mr. Sessions pointed to what he called Judge Sotomayor's advocacy positions and to her widely publicized remark that a "wise Latina woman" would make better judicial decisions than a white man.

"I am really flabbergasted by the depth and consistency of her philosophical critique of the ideal of impartial justice," Mr. Sessions said. "I think that's a real expression of hers."

But he said the Judiciary Committee hearing would be an "educational moment" rather than an attempt to stop the confirmation.

Democrats appear confident that Judge Sotomayor will be confirmed, thus becoming the first Hispanic to sit on the nation's highest court.

From the July 13 Washington Post article, "Hearings Not Just About Sotomayor":

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) promised that Sotomayor will receive a "fair hearing" and that his GOP colleagues will treat her with dignity. But he made clear the Republicans will seize on her comments that a "wise Latina" would come to a better conclusion than a white man.

"You've got to call balls and strikes as a judge," he said on "Fox News Sunday." "The ethnicity focus, the focus on sex and on race, and saying that there may be different outcomes depending on who the judge is, is antithetical to the whole idea of the rule of law -- objective and neutral justice."

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) responded that "judges are not automatons" and predicted that Sotomayor will easily explain the broader meaning of her comments.

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