THE BLOG
07/13/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Stating the Obvious

Law is not math; it has neither the reliability of a quadratic equation nor the grace of a sin curve. Cases emerge from the pulp and pulse of real life, and their outcomes necessarily shape and mold how individuals and companies conduct themselves.

When a case makes it way to the Supreme Court of the United States, it is unlikely that it has been selected for this level of review only because it presents interesting legal questions; it is more likely that it was selected because the answer to those questions will have a significant, national impact on the lives of women, men, and children.

In his nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor, President Barack Obama has emphasized a related, but controversial premise: that the diversity of life experiences of the people serving on the bench has an impact on legal decisions that emerge from it. Judge Sotomayor is a brilliant jurist with a sharp and independent mind and a record of excellence and integrity as a lawyer, as a prosecutor, and as a federal judge with more judicial experience than any Supreme Court nominee of the past 100 years. She is an outstanding nominee for the high court. Yet her detractors attack her for having stated the obvious: that a judge's life experiences inevitably influence how he or she understands the cases brought before them.

For women and people of color in this country, the courts have been critical to the enforcement of legislative statutes guaranteeing their equal treatment in the workplace and educational institutions. Moreover, the federal courts have guarded the promise of equality guaranteed by the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution. The Court's ability to understand the realities different populations confront is inevitably enriched by the variety of life experiences of its justices.

The absence of broad diversity on the Court has no doubt played a role in key decisions of the past four years with significant negative repercussions for women's health and economic stability -- decisions on which Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the lone woman on the Court, has been a strong voice of dissent. In Gonzales v. Carhart, the Court upheld a ban on late-term abortions, irrespective of the real and certain risk to the health of mothers facing an untenable pregnancy.

In Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., the Court turned the Congressional intent of Title VII protections on their head, ruling that workers facing pay discrimination had no legal recourse unless they had figured it out and filed a claim within 180 days of its occurrence, an impossible standard. And just two weeks ago, in AT&T Corp. v. Hulteen, the Court dealt a blow to the women workers who continue to suffer financial losses because of pregnancy discrimination that preceded passage of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.

The ideal of impartial jurists with the intellectual prowess to apply the law in the most nuanced situations is not diminished by recognizing that judges' experiences influence their perspective on the issues raised by the cases before them. It was Justice Alito, for example, who stated during his confirmation hearings that he was reminded of his immigrant ancestors when cases involving immigrants came before him. And Justice Ginsburg, referring to a recent case, told USA Today that some of her colleagues on the bench did not quite understand how sensitive a strip search would be for a 13-year old girl.

Will Judge Sotomayor's experience growing up the child of Puerto Rican immigrants in the Bronx, and the challenges she faced entering the legal profession at a time when women were treated far from equal, influence her perspective on the cases before her? Unavoidably.

If confirmed, will she be less rigorous in the application of the law, less respectful of the rule of law and the Constitution because of her unique perspective as the first Hispanic and only the third woman to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States? Absolutely not. Might the Supreme Court's decisions be improved by a diversity of life experience? One would certainly hope so.