When politicians speak in code, parsing statements for phrases or words which carry negative connotations, they do our nation a profound disservice. Fortunately for Americans, we host some particularly talented satirists who have taken it upon themselves to, justifiably, mock this manipulative practice. Since Supreme Court Justice, David Souter, announced his intention to retire after the present term, providing Barack Obama the opportunity to appoint someone new, our satirists — namely, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert — have already enjoyed the chance to impart the inherent irony of the Republican opposition’s newest code word: empathy.
It’s not much of a surprise that Republicans would find something to complain about regarding the anticipated Supreme Court vacancy. Political conservatives have been critical of the President’s every action, so why should this be any different? But, empathy? Their opposition to a character trait of a Justice yet to be named, took shape over the weekend, and are discussed briefly at the beginning of this clip from Countdown with Keith Olbermann:
As noted in the Countdown clip, empathy is code for judicial activism, which is code for pro-choice for Republicans. Jon Stewart’s and Stephen Colbert’s treatments of the Souter retirement, aside from being funnier than Olbermann’s, go beyond the bickering of conservative politicians and reveal the mainstream media’s penchant for stirring up controversy. David Greggory, in particular, appeared adamant about drawing a reaction from Sen. Arlen Specter, fresh off his defection from the GOP, focusing on the word “empathy” as if a coded meaning was implied. (Really, David, what’s happened to you?)
Be sure to tell me what you think in the comments section below. First, however, read Obama’s stated desires for his first Supreme Court appointment:
Now, the process of selecting someone to replace Justice Souter is among my most serious responsibilities as President. So I will seek somebody with a sharp and independent mind and a record of excellence and integrity. I will seek someone who understands that justice isn’t about some abstract legal theory or footnote in a case book. It is also about how our laws affect the daily realities of people’s lives — whether they can make a living and care for their families; whether they feel safe in their homes and welcome in their own nation.
I view that quality of empathy, of understanding and identifying with people’s hopes and struggles as an essential ingredient for arriving as just decisions and outcomes. I will seek somebody who is dedicated to the rule of law, who honors our constitutional traditions, who respects the integrity of the judicial process and the appropriate limits of the judicial role. I will seek somebody who shares my respect for constitutional values on which this nation was founded, and who brings a thoughtful understanding of how to apply them in our time.
Does that sound at all unreasonable to you?
Also, consider what has happened when empathy is lacking in a Supreme Court ruling as it was in the case of Lilly Ledbetter. The Court ruled against Ledbetter, 5-4, despite overwhelming evidence of pay-based gender inequality based upon a strict, or formal, interpretation of the law. Author of the Court’s dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg expressed disappointment in the majority’s lack of empathy in the case, “In our view, the court does not comprehend, or is indifferent to, the insidious way in which women can be victims of pay discrimination …” Fortunately, this wrong was corrected last January when Barack Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Equal Pay Act into law. Justice achieved, but two years late.
Finally, consider this: What do conservatives want in an appointee, if not empathy? Perhaps they desire a narcissist, someone incapable of seeing or appreciating another point of view. If they are hoping Obama will appoint someone likely to overturn Roe v. Wade, I would suggest that they shouldn’t hold their breath. Besides, we already have at least two narcissists on the court, and that’s more than enough.
Personally, I feel that Republicans are reading way too much into the attributes Obama desires in whomever he decides to select. They’ve chosen “empathy” as a buzzword to stir up their dwindling base in an effort to sway the President’s choice. Both, conservatives and the mainstream media need to drop the code, as our invaluable satirists have hilariously suggested. Instead, they should consider what empathy really means:
empathy: Noun – the ability to sense and understand someone else’s feelings as if they were one’s own.
Should they do that, they’ll likely arrive at the conclusion that I have: Empathy is not only desirable in a Supreme Court Justice, but it should be a prerequisite for consideration.
Image: Flickr User: NCinDC by way of CreativeCommons.org