Judge Sonia Sotomayor is lavishly experienced and spectacularly qualified to be a Supreme Court Justice. However, if King Solomon or Christ himself came back to earth and was nominated by President Obama, the General Opposition Party (GOP) would find something to criticize. They’ve been itching for a fight ever since Justice David Souter announced his retirement, and they’re not about to be deprived of it, regardless of how ridiculous their arguments may be.
Immediately after her nomination was announced, there were ludicrous accusations that Judge Sotomayor—a renowned scholar and Summa Cum Laude graduate of Princeton and Yale—was lacking in intelligence. Then this daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants was accused of racism. In ordinary circumstances, it shouldn’t be necessary to dignify such attacks by responding to them. However, for the sake of those who limit their news gathering to the radical right media, there were those who chose to set the record straight.
Mark Krikorian of National Review Online weighed in, whining about a report that the judge likes to have her name pronounced correctly. Then attempts were made to center attention on two out-of-context remarks she uttered in 2001 and 2005, respectively. Now that it seems unlikely the pundits will generate much outrage from those attacks, the major focus of the Party of No seems to be, for the moment, a point of philosophy: that Judge Sotomayor may have feelings and even—horrors!—empathy! God forbid that feelings could somehow creep into the deliberations of a justice!
No one who listens to the likes of Rush Limbaugh or Newt Gingrich is going to be swayed by mere logic and facts, but just for the record, here are a few relevant points:
First, in her 17 years of experience as a federal court judge, Sotomayor has earned a reputation of fairness and objectivity. She’s hardly likely to start now throwing out judicial precedent in favor of promoting her own personal agendas.
Secondly, the Supreme Court is and always has been composed of human beings. If total and complete, bloodless, passionless objectivity were desirable in justices, we should be working on a computer program that could parse every phrase in the constitution and every decision ever handed down by justices past and make truly impartial decisions, untainted by emotions of any kind. However, it could be argued that such a “court” was not at all what the Founding Fathers, in their infinite wisdom, had in mind.
Finally—and here’s the reason computer scientists have been stumped so far in their attempts to get computers to think like people—emotions are a necessary component for making reasonable, rational decisions. This fundamental fact of human nature is well known to psychologists and, for lay audiences, has been brilliantly explained in several best-selling books—notably, Decartes’ Error (1994), by Antonio Damasio, and How We Decide (2009), by Jonah Lehrer.
In Decartes’ Error, Damasio describes the plight of a patient called “Elliot” who, as a result of a devastating brain injury, could no longer experience emotions. He lacked the essential feedback system that lets us know (i.e., gives us feelings) about whether our conscious, rational thinking is on track or not. His life dissolved into chaos and dissolution, as he became utterly incapable of making good decisions of any kind. In How We Decide, Lehrer observes that even the great psychologist William James, writing in the late 1800s, understood that “the mind contained two distinct thinking systems, one that was rational and deliberate and another that was quick, effortless, and emotional. The key to making decisions, James said, was knowing when to rely on which system.”
Given her solid reputation for excellent decision making, it appears that Judge Sonia Sotomayor knows what part of her brain to use when. If only the same could be said for some of her most vociferous critics.