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A lesson in Senate hearings

Is it a punishable offense to be a 'wise Latina'?

July 18, 2009|SANDY BANKS

If you caught even a snippet of the Senate Judiciary Committee's marathon confirmation hearing for Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor this week, you might think being a "wise Latina" is a punishable offense.

Republican senators pummeled her so relentlessly that she disavowed the phrase as a "failed rhetorical flourish" that miscommunicated her true feelings.

But did it fail because she didn't deliver her message clearly enough, or because we all hear things differently?

What she said was straightforward enough: "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."

That was one sentence in an eight-page speech Sotomayor delivered at UC Berkeley in 2002 at a conference of Latino law students. It was intended, she explained to the judiciary committee this week, "to inspire them to believe their life experiences would enrich the legal system."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, July 22, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 52 words Type of Material: Correction
Sandy Banks: Sandy Banks' column in Saturday's Section A on the confirmation hearing for Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor referred to Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions as the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) is the committee's chairman. Sessions is the ranking member, the committee's top Republican post.

Could she have been less provocative? Certainly. That "better . . . than a white male" phrase landed like an insult in some quarters. And like a blow to the gut of those with "Master of the Universe" fantasies.

But I got what she meant, and I agree.

I only wish as much attention had been paid to her preceding sentence: "There can never be a universal definition of wise."

In other words, we all have something to learn and something to teach.

::

The issues the senators' queries raised this week were not unimportant: Will Sotomayor's ethnicity and upbringing influence her legal decisions? To what will she owe the higher allegiance, her Latino heritage or the facts in the cases the court hears?

But parts of the proceedings seemed more political theater than earnest legal inquiry. And often, the commentary of "experts" hardly matched what I was hearing. I heard CNN commentator John King characterize South Carolina's Lindsey Graham as a "gentlemanly" inquisitor, who softened his complaints with folksy charm. I thought the GOP senator patronized Sotomayor, cutting her off mid-sentence and scolding her in a condescending tone.

Is that my gender bias showing? Or did King have his male blinders on?

Sen. Tom Coburn drew a laugh while questioning Sotomayor about gun control, with his Ricky Ricardo impression that cast the judge in the role of Lucille Ball. Sotomayor plowed ahead, brushing it off. But I thought his "You'll have lots of 'splainin' to do" remark was more insulting than amusing.

Over the course of my career as a journalist, I have learned that people can see the same set of facts differently. That doesn't mean they are racist or stupid or hard-hearted, but that their unique experiences have primed them with particular expectations, fears and sensitivities.

Twenty-five years ago, when I was new on the job, a white photographer was assigned to work with me on a story in Watts. He went out ahead of me to the assignment, but called the photo desk for "backup" when he arrived. He was alarmed by the large crowd of black people gathered to collect donated food outside a church I was writing about.

He saw a potential "riot," he told the photo editor. People might get violent when the food ran out, he feared. I saw hundreds of children, elderly women and unemployed fathers willing to wait patiently for hours for a sack of groceries.

But then I had grown up among poor people, grateful for their government food handouts and willing to share their cheese and bread with other families. The photographer had covered the 1965 Watts riots; he probably saw that large gathering and remembered the chaos of black fury during those dangerous nights.

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I never talked with the photographer about that day, but looking back I wish I'd asked what he was so fearful of. Instead, I branded him a closet bigot and we lost our chance to learn from each other.

But Sotomayor pushes us in a different direction by refusing to pretend that biases don't exist. What she also said in her UC Berkeley speech was that she promises "complete vigilance in checking my assumptions, presumptions and perspectives" when considering a case.

If she follows that ideal, her contributions to the court won't be confined to her legal rulings, but will include the questions she asks in open court, and her discussions with fellow justices. Not only her experiences, but her thirst for open-minded, openhearted dialogue will help shape the court's rulings.

I think she understands that diversity matters not just for the public message it sends, but the private growth that takes place behind the scenes, when people from different backgrounds and perspectives are forced to work together.

"Who are we getting here?" committee Chairman Jeff Sessions asked Sotomayor on the second day of her confirmation hearing. Now an Alabama senator, Sessions was rejected for a federal judgeship in 1986 because of "gross insensitivities" on racial issues. He had spoken favorably of the Ku Klux Klan and called the NAACP "un-American" for "pushing civil rights down the throats of people."

If Sotomayor is confirmed, as expected, her appointment next month to the nation's highest court will take us, for the first time, outside our traditional racial paradigm of black and white.

"Who are we getting as a nation?" Sessions asked repeatedly this week.

Someone whose voice and language you, Sen. Sessions, have never had to listen to before. And someone who might teach us all something.

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sandy.banks@latimes.com

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