Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Jeffery Beauregard Sessions III, Again

The irony of Senator Sessions being the Minority Leader of the Senate Judiciary Committee for the confirmation hearings on Judge Sotomayor is breathtaking. Unfortunately, Mr. Sessions does not understand irony any better than he understands the word empathy, although in his pronouncements yesterday in the opening day of the hearings, he found it necessary to instruct Ms. Sotomayor and everyone else present, on the definition, in the dictionary according to Sessions, of empathy. [emphasis added]

"I feel we've reached a fork in the road, I think, and there are stark differences. I want to be clear. I will not vote for, and no senator should vote for, an individual nominated by any president who is not fully committed to fairness and impartiality toward every person who appears before them."

"And I will not vote for, and no senator should vote for, an individual nominated by any president who believes it is acceptable for a judge to allow their personal background, gender, prejudices or sympathies to sway their decision in favor of or against parties before the court."

"In my view such a philosophy is disqualified. Such an approach to judging means that the umpire calling the game is not neutral, but instead feels empowered to favor one team over another. Call it empathy, call it prejudice, or call it sympathy, but whatever it is, it's not law. In truth it's more akin to politics, and politics has no place in the courtroom."

"... That is, of course, the logical flaw in the empathy standard. Empathy for one party is always prejudice against another."

Ah, where to begin.

Empathy. As a counselor, one of the first things we are taught is the importance of empathy. Without it, we are told, that connection with our client cannot happen. Studies have shown that it is the relationship between counselor and client - that process of active listening - more than any technique or theoretical training, that provides the atmosphere that enables change.

As counselors, we do not tell our clients what to do. We do not advise, suggest, nor do we soothe or comfort. It is not for me to approve nor disapprove of the choices my client makes, but rather to provide a safe place for the client to explore his or her own feelings about those choices, re-write the story if necessary, and try out different options for the future - or the past. It isn't about me and my values. It isn't about what I think is right and wrong. It isn't about what I feel or think. It is about what the client needs, and wants, and their values and ideas. Empathy is placing myself in their shoes, letting go of my own ego and imagining myself in their life, understanding their pain. Not experiencing their pain: understanding.

I may not understand the experience, but we've all experienced pain, hurt, and anger so can relate to feelings.
That is empathy. Finding the common experience, something with which to relate.

Prejudices? We all have them whether we are willing to admit to it or not. I am saddened that now that we have an African-American president, it appears that racism and prejudice seem to be permissible to bring into the open in a way it hasn't been in over 30 years.

Prejudice is judging someone based on their membership in a group. Hating someone because they are a member of a religion, ethnic group, race, political party, social group, or any kind of group. Assigning characteristics to an individual commonly associated with the group to which they belong which may or may not be true. For example; gay men molest little boys (false), democrats are pro abortion (false), republicans are anti abortion (false), Gypsies steal (false), people from the south are all racist (false), all Catholics are Christian (true), all Christians believe the Bible is the literal word of God (false) and all Christians believe the same thing (false).

Racism is a unique prejudice that believes that all people of a race different than one's own are inferior. Interestingly, many racists are also devout Christians, or express deep religiosity in some other religion and as such, are less concerned with science. If they were, they would understand that there is no real genetic difference between races, and in fact, there is only about 1% genetic difference between humans and chimpanzees. So, it makes just as much sense to judge others on the color of their skin as it does to judge them on the color of their eyes, or hair, or their height (although I guess we do that, too).

And sympathy? Many, many people mistake sympathy for empathy. We all hate sympathy - or at least being the recipient of sympathy unless you enjoy being the victim. Sympathy is cloying, patronizing, and implies that you need someone to take care of you - that you are needy and dependent. We can feel sympathy for someone who has experienced serious illness or tragedy, but we also expect that over time they will move on and need less and less of our support and begin to recover from their dependency. There is always a point when sympathy becomes frustrating and debilitating and turns into a negative for at least one of the parties involved.

Empathy? It is always positive. We don't feel the pain, the tragedy, the anger. We understand it. We recognize it but we don't internalize it because to do so would be to minimize our ability to help, encourage victimhood, and weaken ourselves and cause burnout. Empathy is simply a way to connect with each other, to acknowledge how we are alike rather than emphasizing how we are different.

So the use of empathy in law, in politics? I don't see how anyone can govern effectively or rule wisely without it. One of the main problems in Washington today - and for a long time now - is the total disconnect from the real world. Our politicians and judges have no real contact with real people outside the beltway and without empathy, make decisions based on what is best for them and their insular world, rather than what is best for the country and the majority of the people, so yes, empathy is mandatory.

And the role of Mr. Sessions in all of this? Here's where we come to irony. From the Mirriam-Webster Dictionary:

Irony -
1: a pretense of ignorance and of willingness to learn from another assumed in order to make the other's false conceptions conspicuous by adroit questioning —called also Socratic irony

2 a
: the use of words to express something other than and especially the opposite of the literal meaning b: a usually humorous or sardonic literary style or form characterized by irony c: an ironic expression or utterance

3 a
(1): incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected result (2): an event or result marked by such incongruity b: incongruity between a situation developed in a drama and the accompanying words or actions that is understood by the audience but not by the characters in the play —called also dramatic irony, tragic irony

Mr. Sessions last sat before this very committee, before many of these same members as a supplicant for a judgeship in his own right. Not a Supreme Court judgeship, just a federal one, for which he was (very rightly) rejected. Losing out on that dream, he went into politics and now sits in judgement of Judge Sotomayor. The cause of his rejection? Racism. What he chooses to focus on in his interrogations of Judge Sotomayor? Racism. Why? Because she said that her experience as a Latina woman gave her the life experience to empathize with those before her. To understand the lives of those whose rulings came before her and that this worldview enabled her to have the perspective to look at the law with an understanding of its real world effects. Every Republican on the Committee yesterday referenced her "Wise Latina woman" comment in their opening remarks and intends to question her about it. You will note, not one of them, nor the mainstream media, has seen fit to quote the entire context of that remark. Fortunately, the Democratic Senators have and will see to that.

Chairmanships in the House and Senate are gained by seniority. Mr. Sessions was not next in line for his. When Arlen Spector move across the aisle to become a Democrat, it opened up the spot for Minority Chair of the Judicial Committee. Knowing full well the (racist) history of Mr. Sessions, knowing the points they had decided to use to attack Ms. Sotomayor (even knowing she would be confirmed regardless), the Republican leadership jumped Mr. Sessions to the head of the line and named him to the position. Why? That's an interesting question. So far, all the strategy devised by the Republicans so far has failed, so it will be interesting as this confirmation process moves forward to see how this one plays out.

To find out more about Jeff Sessions own history with the Judiciary Committee and his failed bid for a judicial nomination, go here.

Thanks for stopping by. Come back soon.

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