I haven’t said anything yet on the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, and one reason has been that I did not know much about her outside of the Greenwald-Rosen clash a few weeks ago. I’m not sure that I know that much more about her now, but I can say something about the responses to her nomination. It seems somewhat telling that even Rosen, who wrote what Greenwald reasonably regarded as a shabby smear job, presently supports her confirmation. As Noah Millman has observed, the main thing that is regularly included in the charges against her is her position on the Ricci case. Also looming large in the arguments against her are the remarks she made in a speech eight years ago, including this quote:

I would hope [bold mine-DL] that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion [as a judge] than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.

Apparently, in the same speech, according to National Journal‘s Stuart Taylor, “she suggested that “inherent physiological or cultural differences” may help explain why “our gender and national origins may and will make a difference in our judging.” ”

There is a great deal of teeth-gnashing about double standards going on right now. Taylor sums up this complaint:

Any prominent white male would be instantly and properly banished from polite society as a racist and a sexist for making an analogous claim of ethnic and gender superiority or inferiority.

What goes unsaid here is that this would be the wrong thing to do, which makes it unclear why Sotomayor should be punished for saying something that does not seem in itself all that objectionable. I agree that a double standard exists, which tells me that we should not apply an unreasonable standard equally, but instead should try to police and stigmatize expression less obsessively. Note also that the supposed “claim of ethnic and gender superiority,” as Taylor puts it, is exceedingly weak, if it is there at all. The first quote can just barely be read this way if you really want to read it that way, and the second does not refer to superiority, but only to difference. Since when have people on the right denied or complained about recognition of the importance of real physiological and cultural differences?

Of course, the first quote expresses at most an aspiration or desire that her kind of experience would make her a better judge. Suppose for a moment that a conservative Catholic man in a similar position said that he hoped that the richness of his religious tradition would inform and shape his judgments that would more often than not help him to make better judgments than someone without that background. Such a person might reasonably and legitimately claim this. No doubt there would be a comparable freak-out in certain circles on the left that theocracy was on the march, while conservatives would declare it outrageous (indeed, the imposition of a religious test!) that anyone would object to a statement about the importance of the man’s faith to his formation and thinking. She is not asserting that Latinas are naturally superior judges, nor is she even saying that they are necessarily better on account of their experiences, but that she hopes that they would be. One might almost think that her recognition that impartiality is something to be pursued, but that it is never fully achievable, would be considered a refreshingly honest admission that judges have biases and are shaped by their past experiences. For a moment, imagine a pious Christian who expressed a similar hope that his faith would make him a better judge than an unbeliever. No doubt this would raise the hackles of all kinds of people, but it would no more make him a religious fanatic than Sotomayor’s rather mild comments make her a “racialist.”

On her vote in the Ricci case, it is fair to conclude that she and her colleagues came to the wrong conclusion as far as doing right by the plaintiff was concerned, but it also seems fair to say that federal law pushed them in the direction of reaching the wrong conclusion. An important point about the case that has been left out in many accounts is this:

In part, the city’s reaction was defensive. Because of the magnitude of the racial disparity on the exams, which would have ensured that white firefighters received the great majority of the promotions, an attorney for the city concluded that there was a strong likelihood of a lawsuit by African American and Latino firefighters if the promotion list generated by the test were used. Since Title VII was signed into law in 1964, it has been illegal for employers to use tests that have an unjustified racially “discriminatory effect.”

What this means is that the appeals court ruled against Ricci because it recognized that New Haven had tried to avoid a lawsuit that would have been possible and likely successful because of current law. In other words, the city tried to avoid falling afoul of the law, and the court did not penalize it for doing so. What is to blame in all of this is the law, rather than the judges who seem to have done what they were supposed to do. Indeed, what some people seem to have wanted to see Sotomayor do is to punish New Haven for trying to stay within the limits of the law, and for failing to do so she is declared to be an enemy of the rule of law. I submit that this doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Perhaps I have missed something, but the injustice done to Ricci seems in no small part to be a product of the law as it exists. However, under current law, even granting that the city of New Haven seems to have bungled the handling of the promotion test for its firefighters, it does not necessarily follow that throwing out the test results from the apparently flawed test was a violation of anyone’s legal rights. Presumably had Sotomayor found for the plaintiff, we would now be hearing about how all that infamous “empathy” caused her to side with the dyslexic man against a municipality–oh, the judicial activism!–and to open the latter up to long and costly litigation (which would, of course, demonstrate her abiding love of greedy trial lawyers, her desire to enrich fellow minorities and her hatred of patriotic firefighters, as so many people would be only too happy to tell us).

P.S. Also note that cheering “when justices fulfill their oaths and give everyone a fair hearing” is basically incompatible with complaining about what Sotomayor and the court did in the Ricci case. We keep hearing about how she thinks judges make policy–but instead, the court she sat on refused to make policy in this instance. Arguably, Ricci is one of those hard cases in which empathy is supposed to be crucial, but instead the result ended up looking a lot more like giving both sides a fair hearing and coming down on the politically incorrect (in the conservative view) side. We keep hearing about the dangers of empathy, but what was the denial of Ricci’s suit except an example of siding with the relatively more powerful (the city government) against the relatively weak (a dyslexic employee)? It seems to me that you can object to her position on Ricci’s suit, but if you do you can’t then say that she is guided by bleeding-heart sentimentality.