Monday, June 1, 2009

A Digression - Judge Sotomayor, Truth, Justice, and the American Way

You didn't ask, but here's what I think about the reaction to our Supreme Court nominee, Sonia Sotomayor.

(And no, this has absolutely nothing to do with the environment - although some of Judge Sotomayor's rulings have dealt with environmental issues - but I have something to get off my chest, and why have a blog if one can't rant every now and again?)

I'm not going to comment on all of the people who have called Sotomayor a racist. There have been plenty of comments about that.

What I am interested in is the use of the word "justice."

Take, for example, this commenter at the Houston Chronicle site, who is concerned about "the prospect of Sotomayor becoming the next Supreme Court justice. For the rulings of hers that I have seen, Sotomayor is dedicated to the prospect that justice is an arbitrary thing and decisions are based on her personal sense of what she prefers."

Let's just pretend that "personal sense of what she prefers" isn't redundant.

Here are some definitions (courtesy of one of my fave websites - of the word just:

1. guided by truth, reason, justice, and fairness: We hope to be just in our understanding of such difficult situations.
2. done or made according to principle; equitable; proper: a just reply.
3. based on right; rightful; lawful: a just claim.
4. in keeping with truth or fact; true; correct: a just analysis.

I cringed the first time justice was mentioned in reference to Judge Sotomayor. Folks are concerned because of her statements that "a wise Latina woman" would make a "better" decision than an old white man, concerned that she thinks justice is arbitrary. I think she has simply reached the conclusion that justice has been defined by white men for so long that we can no longer determine what is true, reasonable, just, or fair.

Sandra Day O'Connor hoped that a wise old man and a wise old woman would make the same determinations of justice. That seems to deny what the 20th Century taught us: that truth, reason, justice and fairness depend at least somewhat on the story we tell.

There are principles upon which we have built our society. I don't deny that. I'm not a complete existentialist. I don't believe that truth is an illusion. How well we conform to our society's guiding principles, however, is a matter of narrative. In a court of law, we listen to the stories of two opposing narrators, and attempt to determine which tale better fulfulls the requirements of law. Sotomayor's statements suggest she realizes that white men have written our story. They have defined what is true, reasonable, just, and fair. They have been the arbiters of what stories conform most closely to the principles of our democracy.

Is it any wonder that women and minorities might not view the stories of white men as conforming to their truths?

Well, you might say, truth is truth. It shouldn't change in the perceptions of the viewer. An old white man and a Latina woman should see the same thing.

To cite a truth that many conservatives might understand: Jesus saw that a sinful woman was full of love and so forgave her, while the Pharisees saw only a prostitute. While there are many layers of meaning in this section of the book of Luke, Chapter 7, one interpretation is that the one who has lived a life of privilege, believing to know the law truly, has little sense of the spirit of that law. While Jesus, though he was an outcast in the larger society, understood deeply the truths at hand.

It seems then, that truth may not be what we have supposed it to be. Or in the words of Mark Helprin:

"Who said that justice is what you imagine? Can you be sure that you know it when you see it, that you will live long enough to recognize the decisive thunder of its occurrence, that it can be manifest within a generation ... ? What you are talking about is common sense, not justice. Justice is higher and not as easy to understand - until it presents itself in unmistakable splendor. The design of which I speak is far above our understanding. But we can sometimes feel its presence."

We are human. We cannot define justice at any level other than our human understanding. In this light, Sotomayor's comments make perfect sense. We cannot know justice. All we can know is our experience. We do the best we can. But it's time that we recognize the stories of women, minorities (all minorities, not just minorities defined by race) have been interpreted through the lens of a legal system defined, for too long, by straight white men. Changing that system is going to be painful, and will involve many debates like the one that we are involved in now. This pain, however, is worth it, if we can expand the definition of "justice" to encompass the experiences of all of those who live in our country.


thelifeofdesmondriley said...

I'm with you sister! Though, I suppose I would say that she might not want to paint with such a wide brush. We're really taking about a small, powerful, well-heeled selection of white men. Not every white man in America has the experience of being cream-of-the-crop. - Sara

Catfish said...

That's true. Only white men like Ron hold all the power.