Ignoring Alito vote, NY Times quotes Sessions saying empathy has "no place in the courtroom"

››› ››› JEREMY HOLDEN

In an article on Sonia Sotomayor's confirmation hearings, The New York Times quoted Sen. Jeff Sessions' assertion that empathy "has no place in the courtroom," but did not note that he voted to confirm Samuel Alito, who discussed the importance of his personal experience during his confirmation hearings.

In a July 14 article on the first day of Judge Sonia Sotomayor's Supreme Court confirmation hearings, The New York Times reported that "Republicans made clear they would use the hearings to portray her as willing to tilt the scales of justice to address her personal feelings about the cases before her" and quoted Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) saying: "Call it empathy, call it prejudice, or call it sympathy, but whatever it is, it's not law. In truth it's more akin to politics. And politics has no place in the courtroom." But the article did not note that during his confirmation hearings in 2006, Justice Samuel Alito highlighted his compassion for people involved in immigration and discrimination cases and discussed the importance of his personal experience. Sessions, along with 53 of his 54 Republican colleagues then in the Senate, voted to confirm Alito.

Numerous other conservatives have also stressed the importance of personal experience and of compassion in judicial nominees.

Moreover, the article reported that Republicans "bored in on [Sotomayor's] comment in a speech in 2001 that a 'wise Latina' would make better decisions in some cases than a white male, as well as other speeches in which she emphasized her gender, ethnicity and compassion. Four of the panel's seven Republicans invoked the 'wise Latina' reference to criticize her." But the article failed to provide the context for those comments. Contrary to the suggestion that Sotomayor was commenting on the general judicial ability of Latinas and white men, when Sotomayor asserted, "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," she was specifically discussing the importance of judicial diversity in determining race and sex discrimination cases.

Indeed, as Media Matters for America has noted, former Bush Justice Department lawyer John Yoo has written that Justice Clarence Thomas "is a black man with a much greater range of personal experience than most of the upper-class liberals who take potshots at him" and argued that Thomas' work on the court has been influenced by his understanding of the less fortunate acquired through personal experience.

From Alito's 2006 confirmation hearing:

ALITO: I don't come from an affluent background or a privileged background. My parents were both quite poor when they were growing up.

And I know about their experiences and I don't -- I didn't experience those things. I don't take credit for anything that they did or anything that they overcame, but I think that children learn a lot from their parents and they learn from what the parents say. But I think they learn a lot more from what the parents do and from what they take from the stories of their parents' lives.

And that's why I went into that in my opening statement. Because when a case comes before me involving, let's say, someone who is an immigrant -- and we get an awful lot of immigration cases and naturalization cases -- I can't help but think of my own ancestors, because it wasn't that long ago when they were in that position.

And so, it's my job to apply the law. It's not my job to change the law or to bend the law to achieve any result, but I have to -- when I look at those cases, I have to say to myself, and I do say to myself, "You know, this could be your grandfather; this could be your grandmother. They were in -- they were not citizens at one time, and they were people who came to this country."

When I have cases involving children, I can't think -- help but think of my own children and think about my children being treated in the way that children may be treated in the case that's before me. And that goes down the line.

When I get a case about discrimination, I have to think about people in my own family who suffered discrimination because of their ethnic background or because of religion or because of gender. And I do take that into account. When I have a case involving someone who's been subjected to discrimination because of disability, I have to think of people who I've known and admire very greatly who have had disabilities, and I've watched them struggle to overcome the barriers that society puts up often just because it doesn't think of what it's doing -- the barriers that it puts up to them.

So, those are some of the experiences that have shaped me as a person.

From the July 14 New York Times article:

Judge Sonia Sotomayor opened her case for confirmation to the Supreme Court on Monday by assuring senators that she believes a judge's job "is not to make law" but "to apply the law," as the two parties used her nomination to debate the role of the judiciary.

Responding for the first time to weeks of Republican criticism, Judge Sotomayor rejected the notion that personal biases determine her rulings and said her 17 years on the bench showed that she "applied the law to the facts at hand." Her empathy helps her grasp a case, not twist it to suit an agenda, she said.

"My personal and professional experiences help me to listen and understand," she told the Senate Judiciary Committee, "with the law always commanding the result in every case."

Before she spoke, Republicans made clear they would use the hearings to portray her as willing to tilt the scales of justice to address her personal feelings about the cases before her.

They bored in on her comment in a speech in 2001 that a "wise Latina" would make better decisions in some cases than a white male, as well as other speeches in which she emphasized her gender, ethnicity and compassion.

Four of the panel's seven Republicans invoked the "wise Latina" reference to criticize her, with one, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, saying, "my career would have been over" if he had said something like that.

The ranking Republican on the panel, Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, said: "Call it empathy, call it prejudice, or call it sympathy, but whatever it is, it's not law. In truth it's more akin to politics. And politics has no place in the courtroom."

The start of hearings on President Obama's nomination of Judge Sotomayor, who would be the first Hispanic and third woman to sit on the Supreme Court, was permeated with electoral politics, with Republicans taking pains not to offend Hispanic voters even as they sought to assure conservatives that they were vigorously challenging Judge Sotomayor and Mr. Obama on ideological grounds.

We've changed our commenting system to Disqus.
Instructions for signing up and claiming your comment history are located here.
Updated rules for commenting are here.