A Justice for All

stephen carter

Author and law professor Stephen L. Carter (photo by Elena Seibert).

Stephen L. Carter has the Christian Contrarian-Renaissance Man-Black Public Intellectual thing down pat. A Yale law professor, a best-selling author of both nonfiction and suspense-filled novels, a frequent contributor to the nation’s most-esteemed op-ed pages, including everything from The New York Times to Christianity Today; Carter makes it look easy. He also was a classmate of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, which is why we wanted to get his opinion about last week’s judicial hearings and the current state of affairs on the political scene.

Back in 1991, Carter’s book Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby recast the national discussion on diversity and racial preferences by defending affirmative action’s effectiveness in opening doors for qualified minorities like himself while simultaneously taking it to task for casting doubt over black professionals’ ability to compete with the “best of the best.” His arguments left many critics wondering whether he was a liberal, a conservative, a neoconservative, or perhaps just an “honest liberal.” He defies easy labels.

Carter, a devout Christian, carried this same tough but evenhanded inquiry to the subject of religion in America. His books The Culture of Disbelief (1993) and God’s Name in Vain (2000) helped sharpen the debate about the intersection of faith and politics with ideas and arguments that were at once intellectually forceful and spiritually attuned.

Carter is hard to categorize, not because he enjoys keeping folks guessing but because for him serious debate does not easily translate into the kind of partisan sound bites that pervade talk radio and cable television. In an essay in The Virginia Quarterly Review, Michael Nelson uses Carter’s insights from his book Civility to shed light on the author’s skepticism about today’s brand of politics:

Carter regards politics as having betrayed us, in utterly bipartisan ways. Democrats promise entitlements and Republicans promise tax cuts, “but both parties are really doing the same thing: appealing to our selfish side.” Conservatives exalt property, liberals exalt rights, but “both teach us to worship ourselves.”

Recently, Carter has spent more time wearing his fiction hat. His first novel, 2002’s The Emperor of Ocean Park, shot up the best-seller list and quickly established him as an entertaining cross between John Grisham and Ralph Ellison. His latest work, Jericho’s Fall, finds Carter boldly tackling the “spy thriller” genre. As he began his Jericho’s Fall book tour last week, UrbanFaith talked to him about Sonia Sotomayor, diversity in America, and the question of empathy from the judicial bench.

URBANFAITH: You were friends and classmates with Sonia Sotomayor at Yale Law School back in the late ’70s. Did you suspect then that she could one day be a nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court?

STEPHEN CARTER: When we were law students, Sonia left an immediate impression because she hit the ground running. At a time when many others were quivering in the back of the classroom, she was doing the work, raising her hand, arguing the issues. I remember that her ambition at the time was to be a trial lawyer; by all accounts, she was a very successful one.

Her great strengths were two. First, the determination to get the answers right. By this I mean that she was less interested in persuading others that they were wrong than in weighing their arguments against hers to work out what the answer was. In other words, she always believed there was a best answer.

Second, she possessed then — and possesses now — an enormous human warmth, an ability to draw others to her. Sometimes she and I do not run into each other for years at a time, but, whenever we do, she hugs me and asks at once about my wife Enola, another law school classmate, and my children. I believe that President Obama made a wonderful choice.

How did it make you feel to see a Latina nominated for the highest judicial office in our nation?

I am perfectly happy to see more diversity on the bench. But, in this case, I am particularly happy to see Sonia Sotomayor on the bench. She is, to my way of thinking, a judge’s judge. I teach a couple of her opinions in my courses at Yale Law School. This is not because she is a friend — I have other friends on the bench whose opinions I would never inflict on my students — but because she writes extremely well, always tries to be fair in laying out the arguments, and has a particular skill in clarifying complex issues of federal regulatory law.

Almost immediately after Judge Sotomayor’s nomination was announced, conservative pundits started playing snippets of her old speeches. The most famous clip was from a speech where she suggested that a wise Latina judge would make a better decision than a white male. Those words were of particular concern to the senators who grilled her during last week’s hearings. What are your thoughts about her controversial comment?

The attention paid to Judge Sotomayor’s “wise Latina” quote captures everything that is wrong with the confirmation process. We spend little time studying the nominee’s opinions — hard to make talk radio fodder of that! — and, instead, search for snippets from speeches and articles that we can use as cudgels. This is true whether it is a Democratic or a Republican president doing the nominating. It is both silly and sad that we cannot talk about law, or about a judge’s work, but must instead search for these bits and pieces and make them the story. Alas, that is how America works these days.

President Obama said one of the things he was looking for in a Supreme Court justice was a sense of empathy, of being able to understand the experiences of the less fortunate. As a law expert and an African American, do you agree?

I respectfully disagree with President Obama that “empathy” is an important characteristic in a judge. Had the President said what I think he probably meant — “patience” or “a willingness to listen and learn” — I would have agreed. Judge Sotomayor has both in spades. But “empathy” is an empty standard. For example, a judge who always rules in favor of investment banks might have empathy for Wall Streeters; and, during the civil rights era, there were plenty of Southern apologists who described the working-class whites of the South as the truly oppressed in America.

What are your thoughts about the ruling by Judge Sotomayor regarding the New Haven firefighter case [Ricci v. DeStefano] that was recently overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court? Did you agree or disagree with Judge Sotomayor’s initial ruling?

I have no particular view on Ricci, other than to say that it was a sufficiently tough case and that both sides were well within the mainstream in their opinions. The Supreme Court’s 5-4 split is good evidence of this.

When you hear the phrase “post-racial” in regards to the state of race relations today, what does that mean to you? And how do you think the conversation about race and diversity needs to change in light of Barack Obama becoming president?

I think perhaps it is too early to tell. Let me give you an example of what I mean. In my new novel, Jericho’s Fall, the protagonist, Rebecca DeForde is never given a physical description. There are a few clues as to her race scattered throughout, but I never specify what it may be, and I have refused at all times to say. Yet some of the early reviews solemnly informed readers that Rebecca is white! I would like to believe that in the age of Obama, such things do not matter. Evidently, to many people, they do.

Let me slightly change the subject again. I know that education reform is a special area of interest to you. Are you hopeful that the current administration is moving in a direction that will be beneficial to students and families of all socioeconomic levels?

I am strongly in favor of school vouchers, and I am not afraid to call them that. I believe that the government has an obligation to subsidize poor families to help them gain some of the advantages that better-off families can buy. Studies on whether test scores advance or not are beside the point. There is a demand for vouchers from poor families. It is the well-to-do who oppose them.

I am not clear on the Obama administration’s precise position on school vouchers. The President and the Secretary of Education have said several times that they want to fund whatever works. But this standard, alas, can open the door to endless debate. I would respectfully urge upon the administration that it consider instead a standard something like the following: “We are committed to doing all that we can to provide to poor families the same range of choices available to wealthier families.”

Congratulations on the release of Jericho’s Fall. Over the past decade, you’ve been more prolific as a novelist than as a writer of nonfiction. Is there a reason for that? Have you found fiction to be a more effective way of communicating the ideas that are currently most important to you?

I enjoy writing both fiction and nonfiction. They call upon different parts of my brain and, I suppose, my personality. There are moments when one form of writing is easier than the other. This novel came very easily. The three earlier ones were labors of love, but also of agony.

Writing fiction is fun. I write it to entertain, not to communicate big ideas. But if the readers find ideas in the fiction, I have no complaint.

For more information about Carter’s writings, visit his website at StephenCarterBooks.com.

The Riddle of Sotomayor

sotomayor hearings

Sonia Sotomayor appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee for her first day of hearings on July 13, 2009. (Photo: U.S. Senate images.)

It’s funny when you have a democratic system that for the greater part of 200 years really wasn’t very inclusive and established an environment where all the folks with any real clout pretty much thought alike, or at least looked alike.

For example, there was a documentary done in 2004 on a black congresswoman from New York named Shirley Chisholm. The film was called Unbought and Unbossed. In it people commented on the surprising notion of Congresswoman Chisholm running for President of the United States in 1972. One person, a white mid-20s woman, thought Chisholm was pretty bold to be running for the White House and observed that she had a lot of nerve to do it. In other words, “Is she crazy? That would never happen in this country!”

My, how times have changed.

Now that many of our longstanding American institutions are being challenged to become as diverse as America itself, and now that more and more of how America really looks as a nation is being weighed and measured throughout our culture, it seems to me that the majority culture’s routine lack of experience with people of different ethnic backgrounds is now coming into play based simply on the census of what our country looks like. We saw it with the presidential campaign of Barack Obama, and we’re seeing it again with the nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor.

The country has never experienced in its history this type of diversity being expressed in all areas of American life. So, the process that is currently taking place to confirm the first Hispanic woman as a Supreme Court Justice of the United States is fascinating to observe.

During the hearings this past week, some lawmakers didn’t know what to think. In their heart of hearts they just don’t know what to do because they’ve never been in this position of having to act on such a proposal of a Latina being a Supreme Court Justice. It is also true that a black president has nominated a Hispanic woman for the highest court in the land. And might I add this woman has opinions out of the courtroom, which are in question based on the Constitution, and that the law is blind, and that the scales of justice are equal.

However, one could cite case after case that proves, in reality, that this is not true and some laws in the past, Brown vs. Board of Education for instance, were not blind and not equal. So what makes up a strong United States? In my opinion it is when we recognize and embrace the great diversity of what America is, whom it represents, and what this amazing country embodies.

Sadly, based on the outbursts that took place on Day One of Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings, it’s clear that some people just don’t know what to do when someone that doesn’t look like them, who isn’t the “norm,” is nominated to the highest court in the land. What do we think of her statements? We’ve never heard statements like this. What do we think of her background when she’s clearly qualified but doesn’t hold some of the same views and experiences that we hold? That, in essence, is the fear. We can’t predict her.

Or, perhaps what we’re actually saying is that we’ve never before had anyone who was a slice of what America really is on this kind of prominent stage where we can really hear her opinion. I think it’s the latter, and that’s okay. This is new territory for our great country and I love it. I love the fact that the conversation will come up as the scales of justice are slowly being adjusted to be truly balanced.

It’s like that reality show The Biggest Loser. Both teams of overweight people are weighed and the goal is to lose more weight as a team than the other team. The players want to tip “the scale” to their favor. That’s how most people of color, if they spoke honestly, feel about the judicial system in this country. But oh, the times are a-changing.

That is not code for, “Boy, are we going to get you back.” Not in the least. It’s simply straight talk for, “It’s time that all of our bodies of government represented all the people of the United States of America. And by no means have we reached “the mountaintop” as a country because we have a black president. What it shows other non-whites in this country (about Sotomayor as well as the reason emotions were so high with the election of our first black president, who called himself a “mutt”) is that finally, finally, things seem fair and equal. Obama actually ran, people actually listened, people really participated, there wasn’t a 35 percent apathy rate where that percentage of voters didn’t participate, which we know decided elections in the past. People were engaged. It was awesome, and I felt more connected than ever in the history of my 50 years of life.

And now, a Latina is about to be confirmed as a U.S. Supreme Court justice … Amazing!

I say to our lawmakers, Relax, she’s an American who has a set of opinions that probably aren’t like yours. Just listen, make comments, and vote as you will. We know that Sotomayor’s nomination is truly a measure of the possibilities of our country to act upon its best asset — our diversity, our differences, our varied backgrounds and experiences, and our creative power to hold together the United States of America.

If I were a senator, would I vote for her? Yes. Do I have reservations about some of her comments? I do. Would I be tough on her in questioning? I would. Am I happy that a Hispanic woman is even being considered? I am, and it does feel good. It’s a funny, tickled feeling that makes me smile and proud to be an American.