Empathy For Whom?

The Sixth Amendment to the U. S. Constitution provides that  ” In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State…”  It only makes sense that the judge should be impartial also.

One of the most important qualities on President Obama’s wish list for the judge he plans to nominate to fill Supreme Court Justice David Souter’s position is empathy.  If you look up the word empathy in any dictionary, you will find a definition similar to this one from the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language:

Identification with and understanding of another’s situation, feelings, and motives.

What I want to know is, who should be the recipient of a judge’s empathy?  Should it be the victim that was wronged?  Or should it be the defendant, or the person accused of wrongdoing?  The defendant already has the presumption of innocence until found guilty.  So once the accused is found guilty, should a judge allow his/her personal feelings into the decision?  I thought justice was blind.

While campaigning last year, candidate Obama gave his thoughts on the law a la Obama:

“I want my justice to understand that part of the role of the court is to look out for the people who don’t have political power. The people who are on the outside. The people who aren’t represented. The people who don’t have a lot of money; who don’t have connections. That’s the role of the court.”

To me, a murder victim is a murder victim.  If my kid becomes a rich doctor through his hard work and is killed in a jealous rage by a poor crack addict who grew up with bad parents, my child is still dead.  Is the crime more or less reprehensible than the homeless man bludgeoned to death by a group of bored suburban kids?  A life is a life and a crime is a crime.

The most important legal decisions in the land should be determined fairly, by an impartial panel of judges who follow the law, and not their poor bleeding hearts.

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6 Responses to “Empathy For Whom?”


  1. 1 Cyndi May 6, 2009 at 7:16 pm

    I have to agree with you. While empathy is an admirable quality in people in general, I don’t get where it is necessary or even wise in a courtroom. If the defendent was steamrolled into a conviction due to lack of education or money, and the evidence is not compelling, that’s one thing. But a murderer is a murderer (as you said) and a child molester is a child molester, regardless of upbringing or financial status.

  2. 2 robinaltman May 6, 2009 at 9:32 pm

    You’re so right! The most important thing for a judge is to remain impartial. That’s the whole point of the friggin’ Supreme Court – to make sure the laws of the land are fair. If empathy is the quality they’re looking for, sign me up. I’m chock full of empathy. But when I get to that court, I’m going to make sure I’m impartial.

  3. 3 Rob May 7, 2009 at 7:07 am

    I don’t think you understand the entire discussion.

    Obama is talking about judges who will decide things on all matters, not just criminal trials.

    Here’s an example you might be familiar with: the Dred Scott decision. The judges had no empathy for the downtrodden. They voted based on where the support and power lay–with the slave owners.

    He doesn’t want judges with knee-jerk reactions supporting big business or the rich or the majority. I’ve heard plenty of calls from conservatives, saying they don’t care what the law says, that the courts should follow what the majority of Americans want and not side with the minority.

    Where I used to work is a perfect example. Paramedics were hired only if they were already trained. That meant paramedics were hired from the suburbs and were almost always white and male. If one of those rare but qualified African-American candidate came along, or a female paramedic came along, they usually wouldn’t make it through the interview process. The system was designed to be white and male and to stay that way.

    People threatened to sue the City. Before it got very far, the City lawyers saw where it was headed. They created a program that resulted in minorities being trained by the City along with white males.

    Now, here’s the question. Someone goes before a judge, protesting that he was passed over to be hired as a paramedic even though he was already trained–clearly more qualified than someone who wasn’t. Conservatives claim that there was never a legal finding of any racial bias in City hiring practices, and so the program should be illegal because it’s racist.

    There was no finding because the City acted before it went to court. A review of the hiring records would show a consistent pattern of racism. Even after the program was started, the racist and sexist attitudes continued. I wound up testifying against my superiors in a sexual harassment case against the fire department–harassment my superiors aided and abetted.

    If this case were to go before the Supreme Court, do you think they should rule that the program is racist and sexist, since it hires less-qualified blacks and women over already-trained white men? Or do you want a judge with empathy who will not immediately disregard the minority position and won’t judge the program based on law and the history of where the program came from?

    • 4 mamaneeds2rant May 7, 2009 at 10:19 am

      Rob, there is no place for value judgments when it comes to the law. Because whose values are going to choose the laws that govern a country full of people with a whole range of values and sympathies? The law does not allow for racial or gender bias when hiring. The courts would be correct to follow this ruling, allowing for the most qualified person to be hired. It’s not the law that was at fault, but the interviewers that would reject a qualified female or minority candidate. This is what needs to be addressed.

  4. 5 Evenshine May 7, 2009 at 8:13 am

    Ahhhh….the Obamaspeak. Amazing that he still gets this kind of thing past the average American. SOUNDS great, but then you actually think about the *meaning*, and it (should) give you pause. Nice points.

    • 6 mamaneeds2rant May 7, 2009 at 10:08 am

      There are a lot of terms being used out there that sound really good and noble but in fact mean the opposite. The “Fairness Doctrine” would unfairly force radio stations to air liberal ideas whether people want to listen or not; the “Free Choice” Act would in fact intimidate workers into voting for the union whether this is what they truly want, and progressive is just another word for good old fashioned socialism which has only harmed any nation lulled into trying it.


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