Sotomayor's Larry Summers Defense
Sonia Sotomayor has taken a lot of heat from Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee for her comment that, “Whether born from experience or inherent physiological or cultural differences, a possibility I abhor less or discount less than my colleague Judge Cedarbaum, our gender and national origins may and will make a difference in our judging.” To her critics, this sounds uncomfortably like a claim that women or Latino or African American judges are genetically predisposed to decide cases differently from white males.
Questioned about this by Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas, Sotomayor reassured him that she had merely been trying to explore a “hypothetical question,” in the manner of a probing social scientist. “[W]hat I was saying,” she told Cornyn, “is ‘let's ask the question.’ That's what all of these studies are doing. Ask the question if there's a difference. Ignoring things and saying, you know, ‘it doesn't happen’ isn't an answer to a situation. It's consider it. Consider it as a possibility and think about it. But I certainly wasn't intending to suggest that there would be a difference that affected the outcome. I talked about there being a possibility that it could affect the process of judging.”
Call it the Larry Summers defense. Back in January 2005, then-Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers addressed a conference on the lack of tenured women faculty in the sciences. Summers said he wanted to “just try to think about and offer some hypotheses as to why we observe what we observe without seeing this through the kind of judgmental tendency that inevitably is connected with all our common goals of equality.” Citing various research studies, he then proceeded to suggest that some of the male predominance in physics, chemistry and mathematics was not due to discrimination but “more intrinsic human nature,” i.e., deep-rooted genetic differences in the way males and females think.
Outraged, women scientists and others denounced Summers for seeming to endorse the notion that women are inherently less capable of doing top scientific work than men. They brushed off his disclaimer that he was just sort of, you know, floating a theory.
Summers fell all over himself apologizing, but it wasn’t enough. A year later, having lost a no-confidence vote by an indignant Harvard faculty, he resigned. Today, of course, he’s the top economic adviser to President Obama.
Today Republicans on the Judiciary Committee are trying to back Sotomayor into the same political corner into which feminists once backed Summers. I doubt they will find her defense more credible than women scientists found the original.
But, unlike Summers, Sotomayor’s got the votes to win anyway.
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