08.05.09

On The Nomination Of Judge Sonia Sotomayor To Be An Associate Justice Of The U.S. Supreme Court

Yesterday, as we began the debate on the historic nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, Senator Reid, Senator Feinstein, Senator Menendez, Senator Whitehouse and Senator Brown gave powerful statements in support of Judge Sotomayor’s long record – a record that makes her a highly qualified nominee.  I thank those Senators for their moving statements.
 
In the course of my opening statement yesterday, I spoke about the value of real world judging.  Among the cases I discussed were two involving the strip searches of adolescent girls.  I spoke about how Judge Sotomayor and Justice Ginsburg properly approached those decisions in their respective courts.
 
Judge Sotomayor is certainly not the first nominee to discuss how her background has shaped her character.  Many recent justices have spoken of their life experiences as an influential factor in how they approach cases. Justice Alito at his confirmation hearings described his experience growing up as a child of Italian immigrants, saying: “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.”
 
Chief Justice Roberts testified at his confirmation hearing that, “of course, we all bring our life experiences to the bench.”
 
Justice O’Connor echoed these statements when she said recently: “We’re all creatures of our upbringing. We bring whatever we are as people to a job like the Supreme Court. We have our life experiences…So that made me a little more pragmatic than some other justices. I liked to find solutions that would work.”
 
Justice O’Connor also explained recently: “You do have to have an understanding of how some rule you make will apply to people in the real world. I think that there should be an awareness of the real-world consequences of the principles of the law you apply.”
 
I recall another Supreme Court nominee who spoke during his confirmation hearing of his personal struggle to overcome obstacles.  He made a point of describing his life as: “One that required me to at some point touch on virtually every aspect, every level of our country, from people who couldn't read and write to people who were extremely literate, from people who had no money to people who were very wealthy.  So, what I bring to this Court, I believe, is an understanding and the ability to stand in the shoes of other people across a broad spectrum of this country.”  That is the definition of empathy.  That nominee was Clarence Thomas.  Indeed, when President George H.W. Bush nominated Justice Thomas to the Supreme Court, he touted him as:  “a delightful and warm, intelligent person who has great empathy and a wonderful sense of humor.”
 
Let me cite to one example of a decision by Justice Thomas that I expect was informed by his experience.  In Virginia v. Black, the Supreme Court in 2003 held that Virginia’s statute against cross burning, done with an attempt to intimidate, was constitutional.   However, at the same time, the Court’s decision also rejected another provision in that statute.  Justice Thomas wrote a heartfelt opinion, where he stated he would have gone even further.  He began his opinion: “In every culture, certain things acquire meaning well beyond what outsiders can comprehend. That goes for both the sacred . . . and the profane.  I believe that cross burning is the paradigmatic example of the latter.”  He went on to describe the Ku Klux Klan as a “terrorist organization,” while discussing the history of cross burning, particularly in Virginia, and the brutalization of racial minorities and others through terror and lawlessness.  Would anyone deny Justice Thomas his standing, or seek to belittle his perspective on these matters?  I trust not.  Who would call him biased, or attack him, as Judge Sotomayor is now being attacked?  I trust no one would.  Real world experience, real world judging, and awareness of the real world consequences of decisions are vital aspects of the law.    
 
I look forward to today’s debate on this historic nomination.  One of the Judiciary Committee’s newest and most active members, Senator Klobuchar, has been a leader in support of this nomination.  I see the senior Senator from Minnesota on the floor, as well as several other women Senators.  I yield the floor to her, and reserve the balance of my time.

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