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Jack Zaleski, Published July 19 2009

Zaleski: There's a heart beating beneath robe

We can’t escape our roots. No one can separate from the influences of youth, neighborhood and family. It’s why that time of life is called “the formative years.” It’s part of us until the curtain falls. It can’t be denied, no matter how hard we try.

Yet, rejection of self was the absurd theme of questions directed at U.S. Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor at last week’s Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings. It was like a movie from Bizarre-o-land.

Republican senators took the lead in trying to paint the nominee as an out-of-control Latina woman who would decide cases based solely on her ethnicity. Never mind her record reveals just the opposite judicial temperament. Never mind that the impossible standard applied to Sotomayor was not asked of previous nominees. And later in their careers they said their personal backgrounds made them better high court justices.

Justice Samuel Alito is the most recent example. The son of Italian immigrant parents, he said his early life and the experiences in his neighborhood are integral to his identity and world outlook, and

therefore influence the way he interprets the law.

Former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor frequently said her experiences as a daughter of Western ranch country influenced her work on the bench.

And does anyone doubt that the late Justice Thurgood Marshall brought to the bench the tempering of his life as a black man in a segregated nation and as a pioneer civil rights lawyer?

Closer to home, North Dakota’s long-serving and highly respected chief justice, Gerald VandeWalle, is from Noonan, one of the smallest of small towns. His roots are part of his identity as a human being and a judge. Would anyone question his judicial temperament because he’s a small-town boy? Is it possible his rural seasoning might – just might – enhance his application of law?

We tap human beings, not robots or computers, to be judges. No judge worthy of the robe should shed humanity, identity or the influence of life experiences to kowtow to a political agenda. It’s useless to try. There is nothing sinister in the fact that judges interpret law differently. (Consider the frequency of 5-4 high court decisions.) Among undeniable factors affecting interpretation are life experience and personal identity.

A heart beats beneath the black robe. Be thankful.

Readers can reach Forum Editorial Page Editor Jack Zaleski at (701) 241-5521.