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A bad day for impartiality

POSTED: June 10, 2009 9:31 a.m.
It was a historic day when President Barack Obama announced his nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. No president had ever nominated a Hispanic woman. Nor had a recent president — or his nominee — expressed less genuine interest in the traditional craft of judging.
Impartiality has been supplanted by empathy. The old-fashioned virtue of objectivity — redolent of dusty law books and the unromantic task of parsing the law and facts — is giving way to an inherently politicized notion of judging based on feelings. Lady Justice is to slip her blindfold and let her decisions be influenced by her life experiences and personal predilections.
Obama and Sotomayor embrace this method of judging with gusto, even though it is deeply antithetical to justice properly understood. This is why Sotomayor is such a radical choice. She represents a judicial philosophy that is neither truly judicial nor a philosophy. The political outcome — and the personal biases that drive it — is paramount.
To complement his essentially political conception of the court, Obama has an essentially political conception of a justice. He voted against John Roberts despite his qualifications and his love of the law. Roberts failed the political test, defined by Obama as “one’s deepest values,” “the depth and breadth of one’s empathy.”
Obama uses empathy as a code word for judicial liberalism, and few nominees could be as starkly empathetic as Sotomayor. She has the requisite inspiring background. She has been a reliable liberal vote (never mind that the Supreme Court has been singularly unimpressed by her reasoning in cases that have reached it). And she believes that her background is one of her most important qualifications.
In a rambling 2001 speech, she disagreed with a colleague who thought judges should transcend their “personal sympathies and prejudices.” Sotomayor argued that “the aspiration to impartiality is just that — it’s an aspiration because it denies the fact that we are by our experiences making different choices than others.” In sum, 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.”
This stunning statement of race and gender determinism perhaps explains Sotomayor’s decision in the New Haven firefighter case now before the Supreme Court. A white firefighter studied for an exam to get a promotion. He bought $1,000 worth of books and had someone read them onto audiotapes because he’s dyslexic. He passed, but the city declined to promote him because no blacks had qualified for promotion.
Sotomayor thought this blatantly race-conscious action passed constitutional muster. Does her 2001 speech mean that she would have ruled differently if she were white, dyslexic or a working-class firefighter struggling to get ahead? If so, she is manifestly unfit for the highest court in a country that puts the law above tribal loyalties.
Sotomayor’s nomination represents an extraordinary personal accomplishment and an important affirmation for Latinos. Her confirmation, though, would be another step toward eviscerating the constitutional function of the Supreme Court, as empathy trumps impartiality.

Lowry is editor of the National Review and co-author of the new spy thriller “Banquo’s Ghosts.”
 

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