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Sotomayor hearings: Again with the empathy

July 15, 2009 |  2:32 pm

Empathy, one of a few recurring motifs in the (not very fierce) battle over Judge Sonia Sotomayor's nomination to the high court, came up again when Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) mentioned the nomination by President George H.W. Bush of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, “a circuit court judge like you.”

Back then, said Hatch, Bush lauded Thomas for a number of things, including his sense of empathy. (And President Obama said one of the qualities he would seek in a Supreme Court justice was that quality.)

But, said Hatch, “President Bush drew a clear distinction between the human quality of empathy and the judicial quality -- or duty -- of impartiality. This is obviously very different than saying a judge’s personal empathy is an essential ingredient in deciding cases. Which is more important?”

Sotomayor, who was first nominated to the bench by Bush in 1991 -- the same year he nominated Thomas to the Supreme Court -- said, “Two presidents have used the word ‘empathy,’ and each has given it their different meanings. And I can’t speak for their choice of the word or make a choice between what meaning is closer to what I believe or not, because I can state what I believe very simply: Life experiences help the process of listening and understanding and argument. The law always directs the result in the case. A judge cannot decide the case based on personal sympathies.”

-- Robin Abcarian

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