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Sotomayor Should Not Judge Our Life Experiences

June 1, 2009

The recent nomination of federal appeals judge Sonia Sotomayor to be the first Hispanic Supreme Court Justice has stirred the images of everyone as we learn more about her life and digest some controversial comments she made a few years ago.

In a Berkeley, California, speech delivered in 2001, 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."

Critics are legitimately questioning how she could come to such a conclusion - that one person’s life - based solely on nationality and gender - is inherently more rich, fulfilling and informing than another’s - and that this characteristic would put them in a position to make a better judicial decision.

Some have called her statement racist and believe that type of thinking should disqualify her from serving on the Supreme Court. It has been pointed out that if a white male had made the same statement - in reverse - such a person would never be appointed to the Supreme Court.

Everyone will eagerly await her explanation of this statement at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings - and she will need to publically retract her comment if she expects to receive a favorable Senate confirmation vote.

The fact is everyone is emotionally shaped by their individual life experiences - and those different experiences are unique and full - whatever they may be. We all possess the ability to make good decisions based on the accumulation of our emotions which are shaped from what we’ve experienced in the past.

I remember well as a boy growing up in Ohio a decision made by my little league football team that was also a life-changing experience. It was a decision resulting from a proffer by the coach to the players one afternoon prior to practice.

It was to be a local civil rights decision entrusted to each of us boys - all between the ages of 10 and 12 - and 100 percent white.

We were asked to vote on whether we would allow two other neighborhood boys - the Walker brothers - who were African-American - to play on the team. It was clear from the coach that our vote would be final, and the coach said he would support our wishes - whatever they may be.

There was no discussion or debate and we dispatched the issue quickly as the team voted unanimously in favor of allowing the brothers to be members of the team. Yet, what struck me then - and still does today - was the scene and the untold story that must have occurred leading up to the coach calling us together before practice that day.

One can just imagine the Walker boys and their father initially talking with the coach about joining the team - and what the dialogue was between them when the Walker family was informed that the white players would have to decide through a vote if that would be possible.

We were not told - and too young to question how the process evolved - but as the team huddled together - the two Walker boys and their father were off to the side watching us and waiting for our decision.

The Walker brothers joined the team practice immediately after the vote as though nothing extraordinary had happened. There was no follow-up discussion and not a word about the incident ever surfaced again.

But something indelible did occur during that football season and no doubt it impacted everyone on the team that year with an experience they never forgot.

Hopefully Judge Sotomayor will take the time between now and her Senate confirmation hearing to revisit her thinking about the richness of individual life experiences.

We all have them, and they should not be prejudged.