Obama’s Empathy Standard

Then-Senator Barack Obama first invoked the empathy standard, during a November 2007 Democratic Presidential debate. The question was originally about whether or not the Democratic candidates would appoint nominees to the federal bench that support abortion rights.

Here is a transcript of those remarks.

MR. BLITZER: Thank you.

Senator Obama, you used to be a professor of law.

SEN. OBAMA: I would not appoint somebody who doesn’t believe in the right to privacy. But you’re right, Wolf, I taught constitutional law for 10 years, and I — when you look at what makes a great Supreme Court justice, it’s not just the particular issue and how they rule, but it’s their conception of the court. And part of the role of the court is that it is going to protect people who may be vulnerable in the political process, the outsider, the minority, those who are vulnerable, those who don’t have a lot of clout. (Applause.)

And part of what I want to find in a Supreme Court justice — and Joe’s exactly right, sometimes we’re only looking at academics or people who’ve been in the court. If we can find people who have life experience and they understand what it means to be on the outside, what it means to have the system not work for them, that’s the kind of person I want on the Supreme Court. (Applause.)

Though he did not use the word, he did invoke some of the ideas associated with the empathy standard again in an October 2008 Presidential debate against Senator John McCain.

OBAMA: So this is going to be an important issue. I will look for those judges who have an outstanding judicial record, who have the intellect, and who hopefully have a sense of what real-world folks are going through.

I’ll just give you one quick example. Senator McCain and I disagreed recently when the Supreme Court made it more difficult for a woman named Lilly Ledbetter to press her claim for pay discrimination.

For years, she had been getting paid less than a man had been paid for doing the exact same job. And when she brought a suit, saying equal pay for equal work, the judges said, well, you know, it’s taken you too long to bring this lawsuit, even though she didn’t know about it until fairly recently.

We tried to overturn it in the Senate. I supported that effort to provide better guidance to the courts; John McCain opposed it.

I think that it’s important for judges to understand that if a woman is out there trying to raise a family, trying to support her family, and is being treated unfairly, then the court has to stand up, if nobody else will. And that’s the kind of judge that I want.

Day 2 Cont’d- Reactions to the Souter Announcement’t

From ABC News:

In a press statement, Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee Patrick Leahy urged his fellow lawmakers to operate in a bipartisan manner. “In exercising their important roles in the confirmation of the next Supreme Court Justice, I hope that all Senators will take this opportunity to unify around the shared constitutional values that will define Justice Souter’s legacy on the Court.”

For his part, Senate Minority Mitch McConnell released an even tempered statement on the upcoming vacancy. A Supreme Court nominee needs to be able to fulfill the judicial oath of applying the law without prejudice, and not decide cases based on their feelings or personal politics,” he said in a press release. He also vowed “to ensure that their record is thoroughly reviewed and that there is a full and fair debate.”

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus called upon President Obama to appoint the first Hispanic U.S. Supreme Court Justice noting, “Though we make up 15 percent of the U.S. population,  less than 4 percent of the federal judges are of Hispanic descent and not one has served on our nation’s highest court.”

In a segment on the PBS Newshour show, New York Times columnist David Brooks agrees the next nominee will probably be a woman, but cautions against picking a liberal lion that will galvanize the base. He cites the successful nomination of then-Judge John G. Roberts, who though certainly a conservative, has a more conciliatory style and thus was a much more confirmable nominee.

He also suggests that we should not simply think of the next appointment as simply one liberal replacing another, because the more important thing is that he has a chance to pick someone who will likely remain on the court for a generation.

First, the average Supreme Court justice now serves over 26 years, so Souter was a liberal vote for the next few years, but Obama has the chance to pick someone who will be a liberal vote for 26 years. So that’s just the long term; that’s what makes it a big deal.

And then the second question is, what kind of liberal vote is the next going to be? And a lot of people are saying it should be a liberal Scalia, someone who’s just hard-hitting, straightforward arguments.

But you could have more a liberal John Roberts, somebody who is more conciliatory, but maybe a better coalition-builder. So you’ve still got choices there. And… it’s probably going to be a woman.

Other pundits, bloggers and various advocacy groups also weighed in on what Souter’s departure means.

Ben Smith says he suspects “Obama will be tempted to pick one of the prominent legal minds whom he knows personally, and whose philosophy he likes, given his own engagement with legal theory.”

Matthew Franck at the National Review’s legal blog bench memos urges Senate Republicans not to filibuster Obama’s nominee because  “not only hypocritical after so many GOP senators professed their opposition to it while George W.  Bush was president.  It’s also just plain wrong.  Supreme Court nominations deserve an up-or-down vote.”

The liberal advocacy group People for the American Way released the following statement:

To fill Justice Souter’s seat on the Court, President Obama should nominate someone who can continue his work to defend our personal freedoms and ensure that every person has equal access to justice. Our country needs another jurist who appreciates the impact that the law and the Constitution have on every American, not just a few.

Conservative pundit Michelle Malkin posted GOP talking points on her blog and advises her readers to gird their loins for the upcoming battle over the nomination. The talking points are essentially right wing attacks against those reportedly on the Obama shortlist, including former Harvard Law School Dean and newly confirmed U.S. Solicitor General Elana Kagan, Second Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Sonia Sotomayor, and Seventh Circuit Judge Diane Pamela Wood.

The Heritage Foundation derides Obama’s empathy standard and instead wants the president to consider the umpire standard invoked by then-Judge John Roberts. Heritage praised Roberts’ analogy because an umpire “doesn’t bend the rules for the game, but just calls them as he sees them; someone who offers no favoritism depending on who is at bat.” The empathy standard, says Heritage, would invite a judge to go beyond what the law requires.

Media Matters, a liberal watchdog group, posted audio clips of Rush Limbaugh speculating on what to anticipate over the next few weeks.

Limbaugh: “Sotomayor is Puerto Rican, this is going to make the Mexicans and the Cubans angry”
http://mediamatters.org/countyfair/200905010019?show=1

Limbaugh says he doesn’t know what court Sotomayor is on, but parrots GOP talking points to attack record
http://mediamatters.org/countyfair/200905010020?show=1

Rush: “[W]acko fringe nutcases from the blogs” will pressure “Obama to pick somebody like Ward Churchill”
http://mediamatters.org/countyfair/200905010017?show=1

Limbaugh on what Obama is looking for in a Supreme Court justice: “We need a teenage single mother, who’s gay, is a lesbian, who’s dirt poor, African-American, and disabled”
http://mediamatters.org/countyfair/200905010021?show=1

Day 2 – Cooroborating Reports and Souter Submits Ltr of Resignation

On the morning of May 1st, National Public Radio’s Nina Totenberg piece on Justice David Souter corroborated earlier reporting that the 69 year old Justice  plans to step down. Totenberg’s report includes names on the Obama administration short list to replace Souter are largely consistent with the early reporting from the New York Times, though with one more addition, Diane Wood.

Possible nominees who have been mentioned as being on a theoretical short list include Elena Kagan, the current solicitor general who represents the government before the Supreme Court; Sonia Sotomayor, a Hispanic judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit; and Diane Wood, a federal judge in Chicago who taught at the University of Chicago at the same time future President Barack Obama was teaching constitutional law there.

That same day the Washington Post ran a front page story noting the same three names on the President’s short list that Totenberg reported on, but other names too.

White House advisers have been drafting lists of potential replacements virtually since Obama took office, and the list is said to also include Stanford University law professor Kathleen M. Sullivan, Kim McLane Wardlaw of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, Michigan Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm and Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears. Souter, who has been on the court since October 1990, was nominated by President George H.W. Bush on July 25, 1990, to a seat vacated by William J. Brennan Jr. He was confirmed by the Senate on Oct. 2, 1990.

SCOTUS blog provides an excellent overview of Souter’s tenure on the court and notes Souter does not have to stay on the Court any longer than when he he wants to leave.

Souter is not obliged by law to remain on the Court beyond any point that he chooses to depart.  It has been commonplace, however, for most retiring Justices to serve until a successor is ready to take office.  One member of the modern Court — Chief Justice Earl Warren — served a year longer than he had wanted, because his nominated successor, Justice Abe Fortas, ultimately withdrew amid controversy.  Souter may not have wanted to risk a prolongation of service in Washington — a community and an environment that he has long found unappealing.

Sometime in the afternoon on May 1st, Souter submits a terse letter of resignation to the president.

Dear Mr. President:

When the Supreme Court rises for the summer recess this year, I intend to retire from regular active service as a Justice, under the provisions of 28 US.C. § 371(b)(l), having attained the age and met the service requirements of subsection(c) of that section. I mean to continue to render substantial judicial service as an Associate Justice.

Yours respectfully,

David Souter

That same afternoon President Barack Obama interrupts a White House press briefing to deliver a statement on Souter’s retirement and articulates the qualities he is looking for in a new justice. In his statement, President Obama thanked Souter for his years of public service and praised Souter his sense of compassion, integrity and independence while also noting he was not an ideologue.

Perhaps taking the time to highlight these qualities the one time University of Chicago Constitutional law professor is signaling what he is looking for in a Supreme Court nominee or at least how he would like that person to be portrayed in the press.

Looking ahead towards Souter’s replacement, the president said he wants a nominee that is not only “sharp and independent mind and a record of excellence and integrity,” but also one who possesses “empathy, of understanding and identifying with people’s hopes and struggles as an essential ingredient for arriving as just decisions and outcomes.”

As others have already noted, President Obama’s statement contained echoes of what he said as a candidate when he invoked the empathy standard whenever asked what kind of judges he wants to nominate to the federal bench.

The White House posted a transcript of the president’s remarks:

THE PRESIDENT: I just got off the telephone with Justice Souter. And so I would like to say a few words about his decision to retire from the Supreme Court.

Throughout his two decades on the Supreme Court, Justice Souter has shown what it means to be a fair-minded and independent judge. He came to the bench with no particular ideology. He never sought to promote a political agenda. And he consistently defied labels and rejected absolutes, focusing instead on just one task — reaching a just result in the case that was before him.

He approached judging as he approaches life, with a feverish work ethic and a good sense of humor, with integrity, equanimity and compassion — the hallmark of not just being a good judge, but of being a good person.

I am incredibly grateful for his dedicated service. I told him as much when we spoke. I spoke on behalf of the American people thanking him for his service. And I wish him safe travels on his journey home to his beloved New Hampshire and on the road ahead.

Now, the process of selecting someone to replace Justice Souter is among my most serious responsibilities as President. So I will seek somebody with a sharp and independent mind and a record of excellence and integrity. I will seek someone who understands that justice isn’t about some abstract legal theory or footnote in a case book. It is also about how our laws affect the daily realities of people’s lives — whether they can make a living and care for their families; whether they feel safe in their homes and welcome in their own nation.

I view that quality of empathy, of understanding and identifying with people’s hopes and struggles as an essential ingredient for arriving as just decisions and outcomes. I will seek somebody who is dedicated to the rule of law, who honors our constitutional traditions, who respects the integrity of the judicial process and the appropriate limits of the judicial role. I will seek somebody who shares my respect for constitutional values on which this nation was founded, and who brings a thoughtful understanding of how to apply them in our time.

As I make this decision, I intend to consult with members of both parties across the political spectrum. And it is my hope that we can swear in our new Supreme Court Justice in time for him or her to be seated by the first Monday in October when the Court’s new term begins.

The Chatter on Day 1

Rachel Maddow broke the news on Thursday, April 30th that Justice David Souter was stepping down from the Court.

SCOTUS Blog comments on implications of Souter’s departure:

By leaving office this summer, Souter will be giving President Obama time to select and seek Senate approval of the new Chief Executive’s first appointee to the Nation’s highest court before the Court returns for a new Term on Oct. 5.  That process could be slowed, however, if the President chooses a nominee who stirred strong opposition among conservatives.  With Democrats in control of the Senate, however, Obama’s choice almost certainly would win approval.

New York Times assesses what replacing Souter means and does not mean and who is on the short list:

Replacing Justice Souter with a liberal would not change the basic makeup of the court, where he and three other justices hold down the left wing against a conservative caucus of four justices. Justice Anthony Kennedy, a moderate Republican appointee, often provides the swing vote that controls important decisions.

White House officials contacted Thursday night declined to comment. But Mr. Obama and his team have been thinking for a long time about whom he might put on the court. Among the people whose names have been floated in recent months are Elena Kagan, whom Mr. Obama named as his solicitor general, and two federal appeals court judges, Sonia Sotomayor and Diane Pamela Wood.

Justice Souter, 69, has been the subject of intense speculation in recent weeks because his discontent in Washington has been no secret. He was the only justice who had not hired clerks for the fall term.

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