Empathy as the Enemy

Taking a cue from Karl Rove’s playbook, the Right is trying to transform one of the key strengths of a top-quality jurist – empathy – into a serious flaw. For example, earlier today, Michael Steele told an audience that "the President is looking to put Doctor Phil on the Court."

Last Friday’s Washington Post reported on the Right’s strategy:

An early line of attack emerged last week when Obama told reporters that his eventual nominee would have, among other characteristics, a "quality of empathy, of understanding and identifying with people's hopes and struggles, as an essential ingredient for arriving at just decisions and outcomes."

Wendy Long, chief counsel of the Judicial Confirmation Network, a small Manassas-based group that has been active in conservative judicial battles, immediately pounced on the remark. "What he means is he wants empathy for one side, and what's wrong with that is it is being partial instead of being impartial," said Long, a former clerk to Justice Clarence Thomas. "A judge is supposed to have empathy for no one but simply to follow the law."

A judge who is willfully blind to impact of the law on real people would be a throwback to the type of jurisprudence that once kept women from becoming lawyers, that kept blacks and whites in separate schools, that kept Japanese Americans in detention camps, and that kept gay men in constant fear of arrest and imprisonment.

Just take a look at Plessey v. Ferguson, the 1896 case that upheld racial segregation. The Court deliberately ignored the real-world effect of segregation:

We consider the underlying fallacy of the plaintiff's argument [that state-mandated segregation violates the Constitution] to consist in the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority. If this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it.

African Americans living under Jim Crow would have to wait more than a half century before Justices with empathy would reconsider the issue.

Empathy is not a strike against a judge: No jurist committed to our core constitutional values can be without it. And that’s the type of jurist we need on the Court.

PFAW