News Column

Latina Lawyers Defend Sotomayor's 'Wise Latina' Speech

June 4, 2009


Sonia Sotomayor, controversial speech, supreme court, obama's pick
Official White House photo by Pete Souza, courtesy White House Flickr stream

When the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954 struck down earlier rulings that condoned racial segregation in public schools, all of the nine justices were white males.

This fact was mentioned in a controversial speech by Sonia Sotomayor, who is awaiting Senate approval to become the nation's first Hispanic Supreme Court justice.

But you probably wouldn't know it unless you read the transcript of the speech, which Sotomayor delivered at University of California, Berkeley in 2001.

That's because Sotomayor's address isn't famous -- or infamous -- for the nod she gave to that particular court's Brown v. Board decision, which helped usher in the Civil Rights movement. Rather, her lengthy speech sparked impassioned debate for another reason: a single sentence that came towards the end.

"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."

Although critics have pounced on the statement -- talk show host Rush Limbaugh branded her a "reverse racist" -- many others have said her comments have been plucked out of context.

Among them are several Hispanic women in the legal profession who shared their interpretations of the speech with

"I think what she meant was that people's experience can qualify them to make decisions," said Sandra Guerra Thompson, a law professor at the University of Houston Law Center. "Women may have a different experience than men, and so in some cases it might be an advantage to be a woman. And likewise, a Latina would have a different experience than someone of a different race. That's true across humanity."

In her speech, Sotomayor is offering a counter-argument to former Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's invocation of the oft-quoted maxim that a "wise old man and wise old woman will reach the same conclusion in deciding cases."

Sotomayor argued that although it is possible for judges to understand the values and needs of people from a different group -- as was demonstrated by the "Brown v. Board" decision -- "personal experiences affect the facts that judges choose to see." This, she said goes for all judges, regardless of their race or gender. It just so happens that 106 out of the 110 justices who have ever served on the Supreme Court have had the experience of being a white man.

Sometimes, the lack of diversity has led to rulings that are shameful.

After all, it was an all-white bench that, in 1896, ruled 7-1 in favor of Plessy V. Ferguson, which upheld the constitutionality of racial segregation in public accommodations -- in this case, railroad cars. It's difficult to believe that a black judge who'd been forced to sit in the "colored car" would have agreed.

And in her Berkeley speech, Sotomayor noted: "Let us not forget that wise men like Oliver Wendell Holmes and Justice Cardozo voted on cases which upheld both sex and race discrimination in our society. Until 1972, no Supreme Court case ever upheld the claim of a woman in a gender discrimination case."

Not all of Sotomayor's critics are white males. Some are Hispanic women.

Jackie Bueno Sousa, a Miami Herald columnist described by some as "right leaning," wrote that she is troubled by how, in her view, Sotomayor's comments may reflect feelings of "superiority."

"A Latina's life, in general, is no richer than the life of a white male, or a black woman, or an Asian man; it's just different."

But Ramona Romero, President of the Hispanic National Bar Association, said what matters -- and what Sotomayor brings to the bench -- is diversity of experience.

"And I'm not just talking about her familiarity with Latino culture," she told "I'm also talking about her diverse professional background."

Sotomayor has been a big-city prosecutor, a private-practice attorney, a trial-court judge and an appellate court judge. What's more, if confirmed, Romero said, Sotomayor will be the only justice on the Supreme Court with experience as a trial judge. (The man she's replacing, Justice David Souter, also has this experience.)

But Romero said Sotomayor's cultural experience, too, is beneficial for the court.

"We all, as human beings, bring to our jobs what we know -- the experiences that made us who we are," she said.

What separates Supreme Court justices from the rest of us is how their appointments are permanent.

This lifelong tenure, she said, heightens the importance of striving for a diverse crop of judges.

"It's a very isolating job to begin with," she said. "The experience those people bring to the court is what informs their judgement."

Some enthusiastic Sotomayor supporters acknowledge that the choice of words could have been better.

"Even she said, 'Yeah, I didn't word that well -- if I thought I'd be defending it for the Supreme Court nomination I probably wouldn't have said it,'" said Lily Eskelsen, the vice president of the National Education Association.

However, Eskelsen -- who, like Thompson and Romero, is one of Hispanic Business Magazine's "Women of Vision" -- said to concentrate too much on that statement is to completely miss the point.

"A lot of times, you end up in a world where people are going to be judged on the colleges and universities and degrees and prizes you've won or the wealth you have -- those have not been things in the world of a lot of Latina women," she said. "But the common sense and the practical knowledge have."

Eskelsen knows what it's like to rise to the top from humble beginnings. She started her career as a lunch lady in Utah, then became a kindergarten teacher, then won the state's teacher-of-the-year award, and now is the vice president of the NEA.

"Most of us -- men, women, Latino or not -- want someone who has the common-sense experiences who will say, 'I'm able to look at it with the eyes of someone who has lived in the real world.' "

Source: (c) 2009. All rights reserved.

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