University of Southern California

Examining Empathy: Discrimination, Experience, and Judicial Decisionmaking

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Article by Jill Weinberg & Laura Beth Nielsen
From Volume 85, Number 2 (January, 2012)

There are moments when the law is not enough.

In Virginia v. Black, a normally silent Justice Clarence Thomas interjected with what one commentator called a “Luke-I-am-you-father” voice. The case involved a First Amendment challenge to a Virginia law that prohibited cross burning. During a deputy U.S. solicitor general’s oral argument in favor of the law, Justice Thomas condemned him for not going far enough. Justice Thomas, who grew up in the segregated South and was the only black Justice on the bench, posed a very potent question: “Aren’t you understating the . . . effects of . . . the burning cross” given that crosses were “symbol[s] of [a] reign of terror” during the “100 years of lynching . . . in the South?” He continued, “I think that what you’re attempting to do is to fit this into our jurisprudence rather than stating more clearly what the cross was intended to accomplish.”

Similarly, during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the nomination of then-nominee, now-Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Senator Jeff Sessions challenged her prior representations that she could be an impartial judge by quoting remarks she made the day before: “You have repeatedly made this statement: ‘I accept the proposition that a difference there will be by the presence of women and people of color on the bench, and that my experiences affect the facts I choose to see as a judge.'” Without hesitation, Sotomayor responded, “the point that I was making was that our life experiences do permit us to see some facts and understand them more easily than others.” Ultimately, Senator Sessions made his stance clear that empathy and judicial decisionmaking can and should be mutually exclusive, saying, “Call it empathy, call it prejudice, or call it sympathy, but whatever it is, it is not law. In truth, it is more akin to politics, and politics has no place in the courtroom.”

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