Tag Archives: Empathy Standard

Defining the Empathy Standard

Ruth Marcus at the WaPo attempts to provide some definition to the empathy standard.

Possessing the “empathy to recognize” should not determine the outcome of a case, but it should inform the judge’s approach. All judges are guided to some extent, consciously or unknowingly, by their life experience. The late Justice Lewis Powell, the deciding vote in Bowers v. Hardwick, the 1986 case upholding Georgia’s sodomy law, told fellow justices — and even a gay law clerk during that very term — that he had “never met a homosexual.” Would the outcome of Bowers — an outcome Powell regretted within a few months — have been different if the justice had known men and women in same-sex relationships?

When Bowers was overruled in 2003, the majority opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy was infused with a greater understanding that anti-sodomy laws “seek to control a personal relationship.” You got the sense that Kennedy actually knew people in such relationships.

And empathy runs both ways. In 2007, when the court rejected Lilly Ledbetter’s pay discrimination lawsuit because she had waited too long to complain about her lower salary, the five-justice majority seemed moved by concern for employers unable to defend themselves against allegations of discrimination that allegedly occurred years earlier.

Who’s afraid of Empathy and Sotomayor?

Apparently, Karl Rove is.

Obama the Candidate on Supreme Court Nominees

If you drop the needle at the 8:28 mark, you will see that in this May 8, 2008 interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, candidate Obama sounded a lot like President Obama.

Here is a transcript of those remarks.

BLITZER: You used to teach constitutional law.

OBAMA: Yes.

BLITZER: You know a lot about the Supreme Court. And the next president of the United States will have an opportunity to nominate justices for the Supreme Court. He gave a speech, McCain, this week saying he wants justices like Samuel Alito and John Roberts. And he defined the kind of criteria he wants. So, what would be your criteria?

OBAMA: Well, I think that my first criteria is to make sure that these are people who are capable and competent, and that they are interpreting the law. And, 95 percent of the time, the law is so clear, that it’s just a matter of applying the law. I’m not somebody who believes in a bunch of judicial lawmaking. I think…

BLITZER: Are there members, justices right now upon who you would model, you would look at? Who do you like?

OBAMA: Well, you know, I think actually Justice Breyer, Justice Ginsburg are very sensible judges.

I think that Justice Souter, who was a Republican appointee, is a sensible judge. What you’re looking for is somebody who is going to apply the law where it’s clear. Now, there’s going to be those 5 percent of cases or 1 percent of cases where the law isn’t clear. And the judge then has to bring in his or her own perspectives, his ethics, his or her moral bearings.

And, in those circumstances, what I do want is a judge who’s sympathetic enough to those who are on the outside, those who are vulnerable, those who are powerless, those who can’t have access to political power, and, as a consequence, can’t protect themselves from being — from being dealt with sometimes unfairly, that the courts become a refuge for judges.

That’s been its historic role. That was its role in Brown vs. Board of Education.

I think a judge who is unsympathetic to the fact that, in some cases, we have got to make sure that civil rights are protected, that we have got to make sure that civil liberties are protected, because, oftentimes, there’s pressures that are placed on politicians to want to set civil liberties aside, especially at a time when we have had terrorist attacks, making sure that we maintain our separation of powers, so that we don’t have a president who is taking over more and more power.

I think those are all criteria by which I would judge whether or not this is a good appointee.

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 – 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.