Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Sotomayor's High Road, Writes Kelly Anders

[Our occasional guest-poster Kelly Lynn Anders, associate dean for students at Washburn Law and author of The Organized Lawyer, wrote a version of this op-ed for the Missouri Lawyers Media (subscr reqd), and we reprint it here with permission. Thanks, Kelly.  -- Alan Childress]

The High Road to the High Court is the Best Route
Kelly Lynn Anders

Watching Sonia Sotomayor respond to questions during the U.S. Supreme Court confirmation hearings sheds light on two important issues that no economic conditions can trump or ignore – diversity and professionalism. Sotomayor has already demonstrated her skills as a jurist, and the confirmation process will test her abilities to surpass these additional hurdles to reach the High Court. In each instance, she will need to continue to take the high road.

Diversity – Just the sound of this word makes many people cringe and sigh. “Is this still necessary?” “What is there to talk about?” “Everyone has it tough now, so why should any group receive favorable treatment?” The legal profession is making a sincere effort to increase the percentage of minorities in its ranks, and there are many people who are or who will become the first ones in their departments who are of color. Should they be looked to as resources, or should their ethnicities be overlooked in favor of not noticing the differences? However, if we don’t acknowledge differences, doesn’t that dilute the point of diversity in the first place? In contrast, if we constantly highlight our differences, doesn’t that unfairly overshadow all of the other things that unify us? How do we maintain a balance among these interests?

Professionalism – What does it mean to be a legal professional in the 21st century? How should lawyers work with each other, and how are they viewed by society? Do image and personality matter as much as a “win” in the courtroom, or are they mutually exclusive? Where do “soft” skills, such as attire, protocol, and polish, mesh into what makes a great lawyer, judge, or, in this case, a U.S. Supreme Court Justice? Are expectations higher in these areas for women and minorities?

Despite how far we have come with the election of our current President, this confirmation process reflects the challenges that many women and minority lawyers face every day. Sotomayor has been compared with other Latinos, with the implication that these are her only, or primary, “peers.” She has been accused of having a hot temper, while demonstrating the calmest, non-combative demeanor in the room. She has been repeatedly asked about a quote that was most likely meshed within other language that would render its meaning moot if taken in its full and intended context, providing patient and detailed responses to every nuanced inquiry.

While Sotomayor’s appointment would render her the first Latina to become a U.S. Supreme Court Justice – a milestone not to be ignored – it is perhaps more important to remember that her confirmation would enhance the High Court with another professional who has shown the world that she is also a skilled traveler of the high road.

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