Sunday, May 31, 2009


You have to be living under a rock to have missed the recent buzz regarding President Obama's selection of the Honorable Sonia Sotomayor to replace retiring Justice David Souter on the US Supreme Court. Serving on the US Supreme Court is an appointment for life, and only held by nine people at a time. Beside being President, this is arguably one of the most powerful jobs in the free world and, from an HR person's point of view, probably the lowest turnover of any job on the planet. (The only way out of the job is death, retirement, resignation, or conviction on impeachment - no "at will" employment here!) An appointment is a big deal for anyone who gets the nod. The outcome of the President's appointment ultimately relies on the outcome of the Senate confirmation process, which will unfold in the coming weeks. Until then there will be speculation, opinion, and discourse throughout the media about Her Honor's qualifications and suitability for such an important job. There should be!

The Supreme Court ultimately decides on questions of constitutional law - you know, that document which is the foundation for American democracy. Our Constitution is a dynamic document, filled with ambiguity, meant to guide a country for generations on the fundamental values of how we are governed and live together on our little chunk of the planet. The Court serves a critical role in serving and protecting our democracy. Interpreting this document is not something to be left for the faint of heart or intellect, nor is it a job that we leave to one person. The number has changed over time but has been set at nine for awhile with no foreseeable change on the horizon. The constitutional rights, responsibilities, and freedoms we enjoy as United States citizens are ruled on by nine people in black robes who are appointed to their jobs for life. That is a lot of power, and I don't know about you, but I care a lot that those nine people are smart, fair, can solve complex problems, are humbled by the gravity of their job, and appreciate that what they decide will have an impact on millions of us. I'm not being trite when I say, however simply, being a US Supreme Court Justice is one big job.

Who serves on the Court, what kind of qualifications should they have for this very big job? Citizens who care about the future of democracy are sure to have an opinion about who serves on the Court. It seems fairly obvious that among the many skills and traits required to perform this job well, one of those critical traits is perspective.

Oh yes, perspective. Much is being made of Judge Sotomayor's point of view. She has admitted to being influenced by the fact that she is a woman and a person of color. A quick glance at a photo of the current Supreme Court Justices will tell you this appointment, if she is confirmed, will make her unique among her colleagues. The fact that she is a Latina will alone mean she has a background unlike any of her predecessors in the history of the Court. Stop there for a minute and flip back your history book pages to life on the Court after the appointment of Justice Thurgood Marshall, the first black man to serve as a Supreme Court Justice. His appointment was a huge chapter in our nation's history, and one which changed our nation for the better. Justice Marshall committed his powerful intellect and legal capabilities to the Court along with his white brethren. We also know that he contributed "perspective" to the bench and to the decision making process and dialogue that occurred out of public view but which ultimately impacted our lives through decisions the Justices rendered. Justice Marshall, by imparting his perspective throughout the course of performing his job responsibilities, shed light on a world which his colleagues had no way of experiencing firsthand. I suspect the other eight had a similar influence on him. For nine people working together to solve problems for millions who are unlike them in many respects, sharing perspective makes that problem solving process more robust. Much of the modern research around problem solving suggests that differing points of view are more apt to prompt more thoroughly reasoned conclusions. The contribution of a diversity of persective brings about thought out conclusions.

Oh yes, Judge Sotomayor's perspective. To some people, this is a problem. She has admitted to being a product of her upbringing and environment. She has stated the obvious - she is woman and person of color - and her experiences as such contribute to her opinions on certain things. Charges of "reverse racism" (whatever that means) and biased thinking are being hurled around by her detractors and people who haven't taken the time to listen to her speak or watch her work. Politics aside, good grief people, is this any way to evaluate someone for this all important job? Shouldn't we want her to have a perspective that is different from the other eight so that she can contribute to her fullest and add to the dynamic of the decision making process which will influence the future of American democracy?

Having worked in the legal profession for the last thirty years, I have seen many lawyers ply their craft - good, great, and not so good. The best among this profession have qualities we expect and want from our fellow human - empathy, fairness, ability to listen and communicate, thoughtfulness, reasoning, intellect, and humility. Academic distinction and other professional milestones are arguably signs of achievement, but if that alone was the criteria for a great lawyer we would choose our Supreme Court Justices with the simple act of a resume scan. We don't do that because the other qualities that distinguish people from robots are important here. The human stuff. Like perspective.

Judge Sotomayor will be scrutinized, criticized, and hailed in the coming weeks. I suggest we all listen to her, formulate our own opinions, and hope that the other eight learned Justices appreciate the perspective she brings if/when she becomes their colleague. We all depend on it.

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