Dunsmore: Benefits of diversity

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(HOST) The confirmation hearings this week for Supreme Court nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor went about as expected. But as commentator and veteran ABC News diplomatic correspondent Barrie Dunsmore tells us this morning, an important element was missing.

(DUNSMORE) There was something surreal about the confirmation hearings as Republican senators and Judge Sotomayor herself, danced around the issue that no one would directly address – namely, the benefits to the Supreme Court of gender and ethnic diversity.

Instead we heard the usual boiler plate that "justice" is supposed to be blind to gender and race and that the only thing that matters in deciding a legal case is the law itself. If that were true, then all Supreme Court decisions would be unanimous – which of course they rarely are. That’s because justices bring their gender, their ethnic back-grounds, their life experiences- and yes their political ideologies to the job. And in its overall history, the Court’s decisions have more often than not reflected the fact that most of its justices have been privileged, white males.

The country was approaching its 200th birthday before the Supreme Court had its first black justice, nominated by President Lyndon Johnson in 1967. Thurgood Marshall was an NAACP lawyer who had argued the famous Brown vs the Board of Education case. It was that landmark 1954 case that resulted in the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the absurd notion that America’s schools could be racially separate but equal. No one would deny that Marshall’s presence on the Court made a difference- especially in sensitizing the other justices to the issues of race and the evils of segregation.     

Fourteen years after Marshall, the Court finally got its first woman – Justice Sandra Day O’Connor -and after a dozen more years, its second –  Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  Their presence, very belatedly, made the Court somewhat more reflective of American society. Although they held different political views, both women have noted how each other’s presence helped them deal with their minority status on the Court.  And, at a minimum these two female justices were sometimes able to get male colleagues to see cases other than through their traditional masculine prism.

However, throughout the hearings, Republicans certainly did not concede any value in diversity on the Court. And Judge Sotomayor was apparently instructed by her White House advisers that making such a claim would simply give her conservative opponents something else to hit her with.

As it was, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions led the conservatives in challenging the nominee about speeches she had given that implied biases, based on her gender and her Hispanic ethnicity. This from a man, who in 1986 was rejected for a seat on the Federal bench by this very committee because of his racial insensitivity. Among other things, according to sworn statements, Sessions had described the NAACP and the ACLU as "un-American and communist inspired," adding that these groups tried to "force civil rights down the throats of people."

Given all this history, it’s rather too bad it could not be openly recognized during these hearings, that both ethnic and gender diversity are actually good for the Supreme Court – and thus, good for the country.

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