6 August 2009

The Senate has confirmed Sonia Sotomayor as Supreme Court Justice today, in a vote of 68 to 31.

I caught a bit of the Senate floor broadcast on C-SPAN the other day, including both supportive and negative statements from the Senators.  The Senators supporting Sotomayor’s confirmation praised her history of even handed decision-making, her reliance on precedent and standing law, her attention to upholding the Constitution, and on avoiding activist decisions.  Those Senators who spoke against her confirmation mostly cited their doubt that she’d be able to put aside her “wise Latina” statement, or any other personal view she has expressed, in favor of following the strict dictates of the law and her responsibilities as a Justice.

Note that those Senators, every last one of ‘em a Republican, who didn’t support Sotomayor didn’t have any proof whatsoever that her personal viewpoints as a Latina or a woman (or any other individual aspect) have affected her decisions on the bench.  These senators, both in their speeches yesterday and in the statements they made during the confirmation hearings, kept saying they saw a schism between those supposedly alarming statements and her admittedly centrist record as a Judge.  Maybe there is a schism, but with no evidence that her wise Latina remark (or anything else) has affected her decisions, where is the problem?

In other words, isn’t that exactly how a responsible Justice should approach their job?  Aren’t they supposed to suspend their own view of the world in favor of the law, the history of the law, and the Constitution?  When a Justice makes a statement based on their personal viewpoint, shouldn’t they leave that narrow perspective at the door when they go to work and decide the cases in front of them?

Certainly every Justice we’ve ever had sitting on the Supreme Court has held a wide variety of personal viewpoints, on issues of the day like race or religion, class or gender, and on broader issues like what the Constitution means, or what the role of government should be in the United States.  And certainly, no human can completely divorce themselves from their world view. 

Still, some separation is not just desirable, but appropriate.  What I want in a Justice or Judge is someone who, regardless of their personal views, approaches their cases with every intent of valuing the law above any personal viewpoint they hold.  I want them to look at what has gone down before, and make decisions rooted in precedent and existing law.  I want them to leave law-making to our elected representatives, as much as they can.  Their job is to decide based on the law created in Congress or state Legislatures, not to rule in favor of their own ideas about what is right and wrong.

In Sonia Sotomayor, I believe we have Justice who will approach the cases before her in a considered manner, referencing what has been decided in the past, looking strictly at what is before her rather than making sweeping politicized decisions, trying to further the purpose of the Constitution.  I don’t think she will always decide things as I would, as a citizen looking at issues through the lens of my own experience, and I don’t expect to always be happy with her decisions.  What I do think I can rely on is that she will approach each case carefully and as objectively as humanly possible.