The White House moved today to defuse growing criticism of Judge Sonia Sotomayor over her statement that as a “wise Latina” she will “more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.” In his press briefing today, Robert Gibbs offered this explanation:
QUESTION: Can I ask you, on the Sotomayor nomination, has the White House or anyone here had a chance to talk to her about that 2001 Berkeley speech to see if she might have wished she chose different words or meant to say something other than what she said? …
GIBBS: … Look, I — I think that — I have not talked specifically with her about this, but I think that — I think she’d say that her word choice in 2001 was poor; that she was simply making the point that personal experiences are relevant to the process of judging; that your personal experiences make you — have a tendency to make you more aware of certain facts in certain cases; that your experiences impact your understanding. I think we all agree with that, and that on a court that’s collegial, that it can help — that it can help others that are trying to wrestle with the facts of those cases.
The White House may wish that was all Sotomayor had to say, but it wasn’t. Here is that section of her speech in full:
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 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.
There are a number of other problematic passages in the speech, the entire subject of which was the significance of having Latino judges on the bench; for example:
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.
“The facts that judges choose to see”? That’s an unorthodox description, to say the least, of how a judge goes about his work.
UPDATE: Barack Obama joined in tonight, telling NBC News that he is “sure she would have restated” her claim that Latina judges make better decisions than white males. I’m sure she will restate it, too, when she appears before the Senate Judiciary Committee. But Obama’s intervention suggests that White House polling indicates most Americans aren’t crazy about the kind of ethnic triumphalism that Sotomayor has expressed.