Standardized Tests, Cultural Bias, and Ricci: How Experience Influenced Sotomayor's Decision
Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor believes that judge’s personal experience should influence his or her rulings. Her oft-quoted remarks published in
"While recognizing the potential effect of individual experiences on perception, Judge Cedarbaum nevertheless believes that judges must transcend their personal sympathies and prejudices and aspire to achieve a greater degree of fairness and integrity based on the reason of law. Although I agree with and attempt to work toward Judge Cedarbaum's aspiration, I wonder whether achieving that goal is possible in all or even in most cases. And I wonder whether by ignoring our differences as women or men of color we do a disservice both to the law and society."
“Hence, one must accept the proposition that a difference there will be by the presence of women and people of color on the bench. Personal experiences affect the facts that judges choose to see.”
And the most controversial of all:
“I would hope that a wise
Democrats were quick to rise to the judge’s defense once the quotes reached the public ear. Perhaps she only meant that her experiences as a
Of course, the fact that she echoed the same sentiments numerous times in public appearances throughout her career has cast considerable doubt on these excuses. Yet prior to the recent video release, only speculative inferences could be drawn about how she applied those “rich experiences” to her practice as a judge.
Now, however, there is further evidence to suggest that Sotomayor’s personal biases contributed directly to her ruling in the case of Ricci v. DeStefano.
The case, as most will recall, involves an exam that was administered to
Given that President Obama has praised her for having that crucial empathy factor necessary for an effective Supreme Court justice, combined with Sotomayor’s own emphasis on her Latin heritage, one could reasonably (though not conclusively) surmise that her empathy for minorities played a role in her decision on the Ricci case.
But recently revealed statements by the judge suggest a more concrete basis for her lack of impartiality:
“With my academic achievement in high school, I was accepted rather readily at
Here we have Sotomayor admitting that she not only benefited directly from affirmative action, but that she believes standardized tests are implicitly biased. Thus, the fact that not a single black firefighter scored high enough on the
And she came to this conclusion despite the city’s intentional efforts to ensure the test was free of potential sources of bias by hiring a consultant to design the exam with this specific goal in mind.
Defenders of Sotomayor might object to this interpretation by contending that we cannot possibly know what she was thinking when she ruled against Ricci. If we were discussing a judge who was dedicated to putting the rule of law ahead of personal bias, they would have a legitimate point. But Sotomayor's experience with "culturally biased" testing, coupled with her history of remarks upholding a judge's use of personal experience to guide his or her reasoning on the bench, makes it difficult to conclude she was not unduly influenced by her personal views on the matter.
UPDATE: An interesting article from the LA Times on a Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund (PRLDEF) suit filed in a case similar to Ricci when Sotomayor sat on the organization's board in 1984.