Supreme Court Nominations

Nomination Buzzwords: Empathy Is Out, Judicial Modesty Is In

Before settling on Judge Sonia Sotomayor as his U.S. Supreme Court nominee, President Obama explained that he wanted the court’s newest justice to have empathy for others and their struggles.

But Obama had dropped the word when he introduced Sotomayor at a press conference this week, and the GOP’s attempt to characterize the word as a synonym for activist judges may be the reason, the New York Times reports.

Instead Obama talked about the need to “approach decisions without any particular ideology or agenda.” A necessary ingredient, he said, is “an understanding of how the world works and how ordinary people live.”

In the Times’ estimation, the president’s phrasing is “nice, but not nearly as catchy as empathy. And with good reason: Such long-winded phrases cannot be reduced into buzzwords for the opposition.”

The story points out that appellate lawyer Kevin Russell used a new phrase to describe Sotomayor’s approach to judging—“judicial modesty”—in a conference call for reporters set up by the White House. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. had used the same phrase to describe his own approach when he was nominated to the Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, Republicans have begun using the word “feelings,” in a negative way, to express their concerns. Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, for example, says he wants a justice whose rulings will be grounded in the law, not “personal feelings or politics.”

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