Ted Bobrow

Bronx Girl Makes Good

By - May 26th, 2009 11:45 am
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bobrow-pinataIt’s going to be hard to demonize the girl from the Bronx projects. She went to Princeton and Yale Law, served as a prosecutor and corporate attorney, was appointed to the federal bench by the first President Bush and was elevated to the appeals court by President Clinton.

Sonia Sotomayor has the kind of back story that lends itself to a delightful “Movie of the Week” portrayal.

Her parents moved from Puerto Rico to New York City to provide a better life for their children. Father died when girl was nine and mother held two jobs to put her and her brother through school.

Sotomayor overcame a working class upbringing, childhood diabetes, the loss of a parent and all the expected obstacles facing women and Hispanics of her generation. And while it’s way too early to deify her, it is an appealing personal history that you’d think would be hard to attack.

But you know they’re going to try.

Apparently the campaign is going to focus on President Obama’s choice of the word “empathy” to describe one of the qualities he was looking for in a Supreme Court appointee.

How the heck do you make empathy into something negative and scary?

The idea, it seems, is that empathy translates as judicial activism, which (according to the planned attack on Sotomayor’s qualifications) means that she makes up her mind before hearing both sides of a case.

In reality, empathy means the very opposite. It’s the ability to understand and appreciate the experiences of people who are different from you. If you just look out for, and rule in favor of, people who are like you, that’s not empathy. That’s tyranny, and it’s the type of discrimination we’re all too familiar with.

Obama avoided the newly-problematic “e” word when introducing Sotomayor, but substituted another one that will be even harder to fault; experience.

He drew on a quote from one of the iconic justices of the 20th century to call attention to the supreme value of experience. After identifying intellect and impartiality as the two essential characteristics of a Supreme Court judge, Obama said, “These qualities alone are insufficient. We need something more. For as Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, ‘The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience.’”

Like many of Obama’s speeches, it’s even better when read a second or third time.

When it comes to impactful decisions, few are as long-lasting as appointments to the Supreme Court. It will be years before the influence of Barack Obama’s choice of Sotomayor will be able to be properly assessed, assuming she is confirmed. But at the outset, it certainly appears that the president has chosen someone with the legal experience and personal story that even the most opinionated conservative has to admire. Of course, this is only the beginning of the process and some damning detail may yet emerge about her.

But if they are going to treat her and her empathy like a piñata, I say, in the words of the second President Bush: “Bring it on.”

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