Sotomayor’s Controversial 2001 Remarks — and Their Context

By Caitlin Taylor

May 27, 2009 8:46am

In 2001, Judge Sonia Sotomayor delivered the Judge Mario G. Olmos Memorial Lecture at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law, where she said “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.”

These comments are prompting a barrage of criticism from conservatives accusing her of being a “reverse racist.”

When asked about the remarks, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said in response, "I think if you look at the context of the longer speech that she makes, I don’t — I think what she says is very much common sense in terms of different experiences that different people have."

As for whether President Obama was aware of the remark, Gibbs said, "obviously the President has looked at any number of these issues and believes that Judge Sotomayor is well qualified and will be a great justice for the Supreme Court."

The larger context of the sentence is Sotomayor addressing former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s famous quote that "a wise old man and wise old woman will reach the same conclusion in deciding cases."

"I am also not so sure that I agree with the statement," Sotomayor says. "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 Cardozo voted on cases which upheld both sex and race discrimination in our society," she said. "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," she continued. "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. My hope is that I will take the good from my experiences and extrapolate them further into areas with which I am unfamiliar. I simply do not know exactly what that difference will be in my judging. But I accept there will be some based on my gender and my Latina heritage."

She went on to say that "each day on the bench I learn something new about the judicial process and about being a professional Latina woman in a world that sometimes looks at me with suspicion. I am reminded each day that I render decisions that affect people concretely and that I owe them constant and complete vigilance in checking my assumptions, presumptions and perspectives and ensuring that to the extent that my limited abilities and capabilities permit me, that I reevaluate them and change as circumstances and cases before me requires. I can and do aspire to be greater than the sum total of my experiences but I accept my limitations. I willingly accept that we who judge must not deny the differences resulting from experience and heritage but attempt, as the Supreme Court suggests, continuously to judge when those opinions, sympathies and prejudices are appropriate."

The full speech, as published in the Spring 2002 Berkeley La Raza Law Journal, can be read HERE. It has been republished with permission of the Law Journal.

- jpt

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