Sotomayor and Hispanic Judges: Doing the Math

May 27, 2009 8:37am

Judge Sonia Sotomayor has been getting heat from critics for her comment in a 2001 speech saying she’d hope “a wise Latina woman… would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.” But it’s another line from that same speech that jumps out at me – one illustrating how differing perspectives might inform different approaches to data.

Sotomayor delivered the Judge Mario G. Olmos Memorial Lecture at the School of Law at the University of California, Berkeley, in October 2001; the full speech is an exploration of cultural differences from the perspective, as Sotomayor describes herself, of a “Newyorkrican” turned Latina judge. In it, she says, "we have only 10 out of 147 active circuit court judges and 30 out of 587 active district court judges. Those numbers are grossly below our proportion of the population."

Let’s look.

The figures given by Sotomayor represent 7 percent of circuit court judges and 5 percent of district court judges. Hispanics at the time accounted for 13.3 percent of the nation’s population overall (U.S. Census Bureau 2002), but a considerably smaller share of eligible voters, 7.1 percent in 2000, according to Pew Research Center estimates, given the numbers of noncitizens (and minors) in this population.

One approach would be to say the share of circuit court judges was 53 percent of the share of the total Hispanic population, and the share of district court judges was just 38 percent of the total population share. Another – given the fact that percentage differences can make small numbers look bigger – would be to say that judges in these two categories fell about 6 and about 8 percentage points short of the population share. Yet another, eschewing percentages, would be to say that to hit 13.3 percent would have taken 10 more Hispanic judges in the circuit courts and 48 more in the district courts.

A final approach would be to compare the 7 and 5 percent figures for judges in these categories to the slightly over 7 percent Hispanic share of eligible voters (who have the clout to change things), rather than the entire Hispanic population, adult and child, citizen and noncitizen. In that case the differences are far smaller.

I wonder if critics might latch on to Sotomayor’s comment to suggest she was implicitly advocating quotas, which have been unpopular both in public opinion and on the high court itself. In any case, sticking to the numbers, the phrase "grossly below our proportion of the population" is perhaps in the eye of the beholder – which, if you read the judge’s speech, seems to be precisely her point.

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