Steve Chapman

The chief blot on Sonia Sotomayor's otherwise stellar professional record is a comment she made deprecating the capabilities of any judge lacking a Y chromosome and Iberian ancestry.

"I would hope," she said in a 2001 lecture on law and multicultural diversity, "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."

The question for her supporters is: How do we spin that? It's not sufficient grounds to reject her nomination, given her excellent credentials. But it's still an embarrassment.

One possible way to handle it is a mea culpa by the nominee. She could say, "Let me explain what I meant to say," or "I used to believe that, but I now realize I was mistaken," or "Oh, man -- what was I thinking?" Any of those tactics would defuse the controversy and allow the debate to proceed to a topic more advantageous to her.

Maybe when she gets to her confirmation hearing, Sotomayor will disavow the remark. But her supporters are taking another tack. They say this criticism is unfair, because critics have taken the quotation out of context and grossly distorted her meaning.

Sotomayor, they point out, also said judges "must not deny the differences resulting from experience and heritage but attempt, as the Supreme Court suggests, continuously to judge when those opinions, sympathies and prejudices are appropriate."

Her allies have a point. Anyone who reads the whole speech will indeed find that her comment wasn't as bad as it sounds. It was worse.

What is clear from the full text is that her claim to superior insight was not a casual aside or an exercise in devil's advocacy. On the contrary, it fit neatly into her overall argument, which was that the law can only benefit from the experiences and biases that female and minority judges bring with them.

She clearly thinks impartiality is overrated. "The aspiration to impartiality is just that -- it's an aspiration because it denies the fact that we are by our experiences making different choices than others," she declared, a bit dismissively. She doesn't seem to think it's terribly important to try to meet the aspiration.

That's apparent from the context. She said, "Whether born from experience or inherent physiological or cultural differences, a possibility I abhor less or discount less than my colleague Judge (Miriam) Cedarbaum, our gender and national origins may and will make a difference in our judging."

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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