Image by Jean Deering Davis/via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons License
“Personal experiences affect the facts that judges choose to see.”
That’s what Supreme Court nominee and federal court Judge Sonia Sotomayor has said in the past about how individual experience comes into play when deciding cases and looking at the law.
Many conservatives are afraid of that approach and are going to try to convince Americans that only a judge who makes decisions about the facts of a case in a vacuum should be appointed to the Supreme Court.
But which facts? How do we know which ones are the important ones in any case? The right ones? The ones that will sway a case from one outcome to another? As someone who practiced law for about 15 years, I know that sometimes those questions are easier than others.
You can’t decide a case without looking at all the facts, even the ones that don’t seem important at first blush. I learned that the hard way as a young lawyer. That’s where digging a little deeper and calling on the things we’ve learned in life help us out as lawyers in a way that all those law school classes don’t.
As a recovering litigator, I love a good cross-examination.
I’m not talking about the unlikely witness-stand confession. Elle’s personal expertise that the rules of hair care are simple and finite are what turned the tide in that case. Without knowing those facts, she would not have been able to make the connection and prove the witness was lying. Yet her male bosses scoffed at her, thinking she was headed down a pointless tangent as she questioned the witness.
I know this was just a movie, but the example happens in real-life cases every day. Lawyers and judges find ways to apply the things they’ve learned in their own lives; they find ways to sift through facts and figure out what’s relevant and what isn’t. Sometimes that’s easy and sometimes it takes something more than an Ivy League law degree and years on the bench to put the pieces together to see the whole picture.
Does anyone really doubt that the Supreme Court would’ve awarded back pay to Lilly Ledbetter if the majority of Supreme Court justices had faced the kind of discrimination Ledbetter or their colleague Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had? Ginsburg, as is evident from her dissent, saw the facts of the discrimination a lot differently than her male counterparts.
Facts are never just black and white. They look a lot different depending on the lens through which they are viewed. Some men find no relevance in how women have been treated differently than men by companies who find loopholes in existing laws. But to a woman who has lived or observed that experience, there’s a very real and significant difference.
When the GOP goes on the attack on Sotomayor’s nomination, as they surely will, and try to frame her as an activist judge or someone who can’t focus just on the facts and the law, keep reminding yourself about Elle Woods.
If she hadn’t been a Cosmo girl, her client would have ended up with a life sentence for a murder she didn’t commit.
I’m not saying that we should ask if Sonia Sotomayor was ever a Cosmo girl, but sometimes there are important things our life experiences teach us that get us the right outcome.