5/28/2009

La Suprema

I've got three posts on the Supreme Court.

It's a curious mini-uproar over a statement by Supreme Court nominee Sotomayor, taken out of context to suggest she's a 'naked racist' who believes she’s smarter than any white man simply by virtue of being Latina. I say ‘curious’ because the mini-uproar runs with an implausible interpretation of Sotomayor’s words. And every time this melodrama of a Supreme appointment plays out on our American stage, the nature of interpretation is central to the debate.

Sotomayor could have spoken more carefully here: “I would hope that a wise Latina woman ... would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male.” Her attackers single out that statement to interpret it strictly as a 'one-liner.' But it's not a one-liner. That’s the problem with ‘strict interpretation’ as the term is currently used: it produces baloney like "Sotomayor said just being Latina makes her smarter than Einstein." Its nonsense to argue that context is not relevant, that words can be understood on their face. That’s a false theory of human communication.

What does a word mean taken out of context of a sentence? A person walks up to you and says one word: "table." It means nothing. A person walks into a restaurant and grunts one word to the maitre ’d: "table." In context, the word now has meaning. One, that the man wants a table for dinner, and two, that the man is rude, or he’s in a bad mood, or his mind is elsewhere, or his English is limited.

What does a sentence mean without its surrounding text? At Berkeley, Sotomayor spoke about the composition of the bench: as an addition to an all white male court, a qualified Latina would be better than yet another qualified white male. She's refuting the logic that, if a judge’s ruling is rightly based solely on facts and law, then there's no imperative to diversify the judiciary since the court would reach the same result regardless of its gender/ethnic make-up. No, says Sotomayor. In filling a vacancy on a non-diverse bench, seating the Latina will make a difference: She’ll ask different questions. She’ll see a metaphor in a bit of Spanish folklore. She’ll draw on her point of view to puncture fallacies in oral argument that might slip past her colleagues on the court. She’ll educate her colleagues and they’ll educate her. A diverse court is a better court. That’s not even controversial.

Like I said, a mini-uproar. A boost in Limbaugh's radio ratings. Commentators might try to score a few political points to win back some Reagan Democrats in the next election. But Repubs are not dumb enough to attack Mamacita on the Senate Floor. That would absolutely calcify the black-Latino coalition. And John McCain won't go along with a nasty attack on Sotomayor.

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