Bias on the Supreme Court?

Supreme Court nominations bring worries about bias, “left” and “right.” But only women and people of color are thought to have gender or ethnic biases. When white men are nominated the issue never arises. The upcoming vote on Elena Kagan and the nomination of an Asian woman, Tani Gorre Cantil-Sakauye, to the California Supreme court have got me thinking about this.

What is the record of a white man who was not thought to be biased and a Latina woman who was: John Roberts and Sonia Sotomayor?

Discussing the issue, one of my women’s studies students politely raised his hand to say, “Well, Sotomayor did say that a wise Latina would make better decisions than white men.”

Her actual quote is as follows:

“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.”

So I asked, “Do you think biased judgments would more likely come from someone who is aware or unaware of her bias? If a person is unaware, she won’t be able to take it into account or assess it. But if a person is aware of a bias, she has the possibility of checking her thinking.

The student nodded his agreement.

So what is the record of Sonia Sotomayor? Prior to joining the Supreme Court studies found her to be moderate in her political leanings with 38% of her opinions liberal and 49% conservative.  Clearly her experience as a Latina woman did not show a clear bias. Still, after a year on the Supreme Court she has voted with the liberal wing about 90% of the time.

But John Roberts, a white male who has lived with great privilege, and who was never questioned on the matter, has fared no better. John Roberts has shown a clear partiality for the privileged side of society. Court watcher, Jeffrey Toobin, has noted that, “In every major case since he became the nation’s seventeenth Chief Justice, Roberts has sided with the prosecution over the defendant, the state over the condemned, the executive branch over the legislative, and the corporate defendant over the individual plaintiff… Roberts has served the interests, and reflected the values, of the contemporary Republican Party.”

Yes, there is bias on the court. I find I can generally predict with great accuracy how the Court will rule, and who will vote with each side. Even when it turns out 7-2 I can figure out which two.

At the very least we need a diversity of experience and opinion on the court – and hopefully dialogue, with people sharing their differing ways of seeing – since it is likely impossible for anyone to be unbiased. This can happen.  Sandra Day O’Connor talked of how much she learned from hearing Thurgood Marshall’s perspective.

Today we can only hope.

Georgia Platts 

About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych, women's psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State University. And I have blogged for Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos.

Posted on July 23, 2010, in feminism, gender, men, politics, race/ethnicity, women and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. One of the most disappointing things for me as I became more politically aware was to discover how very much the decisions of our highest court are determined by the political bias of its individual members.

    And the political bias seems to affect their very way of “seeing” the world on virtually every issue, including whether they inherently perceive things from the viewpoint of the corporation more than the individual, the federal government more than state rights, the well-being of the rich more than the poor, the status quo versus change, the prosecutor versus defendants, etc.

    It becomes really scary to realize that the legality of all our laws, the guilt or innocence of individuals, and issues affecting both individuals and companies can so thoroughly be affected for decades by which presidents have an opportunity to apppoint the members of the Supreme Court.

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