Life Experiences Influence Work For Everyone - Judges Included

July 21, 2009|By Janet Gilbert

My favorite moment in Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor's confirmation hearings was when Judge Sotomayor spoke earnestly about being inspired by a particular episode of the classic TV series Perry Mason. Newly installed Minnesota Sen. Al Franken leaned into his microphone and deadpanned: "What was the one case in Perry Mason that [District Attorney Hamilton] Burger won?"

His satire was so subtle, even Judge Sotomayor seemed caught off guard, addressing his question at first seriously and succinctly. He had to deliver another wry line, "Didn't the White House prepare you for that [line of questioning]?" before she lowered her head into her hands, smiling broadly. For a brief moment, Judge Sotomayor could exhale and let down her guard.

Bravo, Senator Franken. With one simple, witty question delivered in your best uber-statesman voice, you exposed the rampant grandstanding characterizing these and so many previous televised hearings. All those questions asked simply so the questioner could claim some camera face-time. More questions asked so that the questioner's constituents could see proof that he or she was not off lunching with lobbyists or loitering in airport restrooms. The countless concluding, speechifying questions asked just to get something on the record for future campaign use. Blah, blah, blah.

In my opinion - which is why I'm here, right? - Judge Sotomayor came off stunningly. That woman could probably compete in the Washington, D.C. Ironwoman Triathlon of Hearings, she showed such stamina and style. But who would have the endurance to watch? Not me.

Her face never seemed to indicate even a hint of annoyance at the single question repeatedly asked of her, rephrased with different supporting quotations from her speeches or interviews: Were her life experiences going to influence her judicial decisions?

Meanwhile, in kitchens and offices, family rooms and dens all over the country, people were furrowing their brows, tsk-tsking and shouting "Come on!" at their television sets - perhaps even standing up to snap off the power. Because we all know the answer to that question:

Of course!

Judge Sotomayor said, responding to questioning from Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania: "I judge on the basis of the law and reasoning." And if you are very clever, you will discern that she spoke the truth we knew all along.

Reasoning is defined as "the process of forming conclusions, judgments or inferences from facts or premises." And premises are "a basis, stated or assumed, on which reasoning proceeds." It all sounds very dry and fact-based, no?

But let's take the generally agreed-upon premise about not stealing, or the ones about not murdering, lying or cheating, for that matter.

I'm no administrative assistant to Perry Mason, but I would have to say that the perception and strength of these agreed-upon premises has a lot to do with a person's background; the way a person has been raised and educated. Further, these agreed-upon premises are later demonstrated or forsaken in an individual's personal and professional life - whether your name's Mother Teresa or Bernie Madoff. Finally, I'd say the objective application of the law serves to frame or reinforce these premises.

So of course Judge Sotomayor is the sum of all of her life experiences, which she can't help but carry with her wherever she goes. To the supermarket. To the staff meeting. And yes, to the Supreme Court.

But she demonstrated in those arduous hearings that she is an astute, unruffle-able thinker. And I just don't see anything in the background of an extremely hardworking, intelligent judge that threatens the agreed-upon premises of our American way of life, so eloquently stated in the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

Janet Gilbert, a freelance writer, lives in Woodstock. Visit her at www.janetgilbert.net.

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