President Obama’s nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court reminds us of the importance of diversity in the judiciary. In order to have a vibrant democracy and a fair justice system, our courts should reflect the richness and variety of America.
Throughout its history, the nation’s high court has not been a diverse place. Of the 110 justices who have served on the court, 106 have been white men. Only two have been women, and only two black.
Sotomayor would add to the court not only her substantial legal experience as a former prosecutor and a federal judge, but also her unique perspective as a woman, a Latina, and someone who emerged from humble beginnings in the Bronx.
While some of her critics, such as Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh and former Rep. Tom Tancredo have seized upon one statement she made in 2001 and called her a racist, Sotomayor’s comment was very similar to those of other Supreme Court justices who were influenced by their background and life experiences.
Sotomayor said, “I would hope a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion that a white male who hasn’t lived that life.”
During his Supreme Court confirmation hearings, Clarence Thomas said he believed “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.”
Samuel Alito, an Italian-American, noted during his confirmation hearing that he did not come from an affluent or privileged family, and that he was shaped by his immigrant background: “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.”
As a former law clerk to two black federal judges, I witnessed in a very direct and meaningful way the benefits a diverse judiciary brings to society.
Both had an understanding of everyday people and their life situations. Their ties to the community and their real-world experiences informed their decisions on complex cases.
The law does not exist in a vacuum. It involves not only rules, but rather people and their daily lives, conflicts and struggles.
A justice system cannot serve all people fairly when all of the judges look alike, have identical backgrounds, attended the same schools and took the same career path. And a system that elevates brilliant legal minds but no empathy in their hearts threatens to oppress us.
Sadly, the legal profession is one of the least diverse professions in the United States. More than 90 percent of the judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys are white. That has got to change.
Diversity matters on the court. And with the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor, Obama is signalling a renewed commitment to a diverse and capable bench. This can only increase the public’s confidence in the legal system, and make justice real for all Americans.