Wednesday, June 3, 2009

'Empathy' on Supreme Court? Let's hope so


When I went through a prostate cancer episode a few years back that required more than 20 successive days of radiation, my oncologist at St. Luke's Mountain States Tumor Institute in Twin Falls was one of the most remarkable persons and physicians I've met.

He clearly was tops in his medical field. However, he also had a profoundly unique and reassuring personal manner.

He embodied what critics of Supreme Court nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor deplore—empathy. In his 30s, my doctor had endured a terrible, physically debilitating disease that virtually wiped out his prowess as an outdoor sports athlete and hobbled his medical practice for several years. But to the everlasting good fortune of patients, his tragic experience endowed him with a special empathy for alarmed cancer victims and others with needs beyond textbook medicine during a health crisis.

Judge Sotomayor has stated that her ethnic heritage and life experiences have played a role in her decisions. Republican hand wringing that such as view is "racist" and would wreak havoc on judicial decisions is a crude smoke screen.

Let's pray that U.S. Supreme Court rulings benefit from life experiences and the heritages of justices. U.S. law evolves and improves because of the experience-nurtured judgment and wisdom of jurists, not because of dusty law books.

For generations after the nation's founding, the high court affirmed the most egregious laws. Slavery was legal and blacks were to be used as work animals. So, too, laws treated women as virtual chattel. Laws allowed women to be banned in most professions and denied rights in commerce. They couldn't vote, either.

Those denials of rights constituted "strict constructionist" rulings of existing laws that today's conservative Republicans demand of the court.

However, over time, new justices saw outrageous legal reasoning and forthwith dismantled abusive "laws" as unconstitutional. Even today, "laws" that have stood the test of time are thrown out as wrong.

Who can deny that life experiences and needs of a changing culture don't influence decisions to overturn decades of unjust precedence?

We've benefited immeasurably from the wisdom of once-disenfranchised women and minority ethnic groups. Women have introduced fresh perspectives in law, commerce, medicine, education, science and government that males couldn't possibly share. Ditto for non-white racial groups and their special understanding of the need for human and civil rights in an advanced culture. This is the empathy that conservatives reject.

The hysteria of Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich and Pat Buchanan about Judge Sotomayor's "racist" statements are in fact the pitiable cries of bigots pining for a return to white male supremacy over women and people of color.

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