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Just One Mother on Supreme Court; Does It Make a Difference?

Posted May 19, 2010 6:00 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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The nomination of Elena Kagan to the U.S. Supreme Court has led to all manner of tallies, as observers figure out how the justices stack up in terms of religion, gender, law schools, military service and geography, and how Kagan will change the mix.

Now a Washington Post story adds a new consideration: The Supreme Court has just one justice who is a mother—Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor is also a mom.

“If Ginsburg is the next justice to step down,” the story says, “the court could be transformed into a body with no mothers—otherwise known as people who know what it's like to come home from work and spend a night picking lice out of a kid's hair.”

The Post asked Northwestern University social psychology professor Alice Eagly whether motherhood correlates to differences in decision-making. Eagly has found that women are generally more “socially compassionate” than men and more likely to favor such women’s issues as child care and sex discrimination. Other researchers sought to ferret out differences in judicial decision-making.They found just one difference in the way male and female judges rule, and it was in matters of sex discrimination. Female judges were about 10 percent more likely to rule for the plaintiff, and three-judge appeals panels with at least one female were 15 percent more likely to find for the plaintiff.

But does motherhood make a difference? Eagly told the Post it’s an interesting question, but she doesn’t have an answer. "I don't know of any studies on this question of motherhood and decision-making,” she said.

Eagly and other researchers have pointed out that there appears to be a “mommy penalty” that amounts to about a 5 percent wage penalty per child, the story says. Kagan and Justice Sonia Sotomayor might have had an advantage, Eagly says, "not merely in terms of not devoting time to motherhood, but not being subject to the motherhood penalty."

Additional coverage:

Washington Post Live Q and A

New York Times (op ed): "All the Single Ladies"

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