June 23, 2009

Multicultural perspective for judges

Stanley Fish explains why it's good for judges to have "empathy." His reasoning applies more broadly to many situations. It suggests the value of having a multicultural perspective on things:

What Kind of Judges Do We Want?In fact--and this is what Sotomayor means when she talks about reaching a better conclusion than a white man who hasn’t lived her life--rather than distorting reality, perspectives illuminate it or at least that part of it they make manifest. It follows that no one perspective suffices to capture all aspects of reality and that, therefore, the presence in the interpretive arena of multiple perspectives is a good thing. In a given instance, the “Latina Judge” might reach a better decision not because she was better in some absolute, racial sense, but because she was better acquainted than her brethren with some aspects of the situation they were considering. (As many have observed in the context of the issue of gender differences, among the current justices, only Ruth Bader Ginsburg knows what it’s like to be a 13-year-old girl and might, by virtue of that knowledge, be better able to assess the impact on such a girl of a strip-search.)

Throughout the evening, John Payton reminded us that these are not merely theoretical points. He read a chilling sentence from Herbert Wechsler’s influential essay “Toward Neutral Principles.” Wechsler is making the point that laws mandating the separation of the races burden both races equally: “In the days when I was joined with Charles Houston in a litigation in the Supreme Court before the present building was constructed, he did not suffer more than I in knowing that we had to go to Union Station to lunch together during the recess.”

One might wonder whether Houston would equate the lunchtime inconvenience suffered by his colleague with the humiliations he had to endure every day of his life. One might be amazed, as Payton was, by Wechsler’s blindness to what he is saying. He was a great legal mind, but something was missing. You can call it empathy or (as some in the audience suggested ) you can call it understanding or imagination. I called it hearkening to the spirit rather than the letter. But whatever you call it, everyone present that evening agreed that it was what we wanted.
Comment:  For more on the subject, see Sotomayor, Empathy, and Sterilization and Sotomayor Practices "Tribal Justice"?

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