Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Art of the Non-Answer

Anyone wishing for examples of how to avoid answering a direct question need look no further than today's chapter of the confirmation hearings for prospective Supreme Court Justice, Judge Sonia Sotomayer.

To patient, repeated, rephrased and varying questions posed by Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Ms. Sotomayer patiently, deliberately and repeatedly explained that she was somehow unable to provide answers. The reasons stated seemed to show an unusual lack of imagination, in my humble opinion: "I cannot answer that question in the context you are asking it;" "Again, this is something I cannot answer in the abstract;" "I cannot answer that the way you are asking it because I would need to take into consideration the way individual state law interprets this...;"

Fortunately, the tone of the speakers did not degenerate, at least during the parts I watched.

Sen. Coburn: "I'm asking for your personal opinion."

Judge Sotomayor: " something...I cannot answer in the abstract...

Coburn: "Doctors think like doctors, judges think like judges, lawyers think like lawyers...but what American people want to see, is kind of what's inside, what your gut tells you..."

Sotomayor: "Let me address what you're saying in the context that I can."

And so on. The above exchanges pertained to the so-called "hot button issues" of abortion and gun ownership.

One question posed was whether the continual advances in biomedical technology should have any bearing on decisions involving --depending on how you choose to look at it--a woman's right to privacy or an unborn child's right to life. Ongoing advances in biomedical technology are providing increasingly refined data about life in the womb: for example, the detection of fetal heartbeats at 19 days post-conception. Should data provided by such verified technological advances be taken into consideration? Again, this question could "not be answered in the abstract."

Admittedly, there appears to be little attempt at neutrality or objectivity during hearings of this type. And I concede that I only managed to sit through about 40 minutes of the C-SPAN replay tonight. Still, there is much justification for the assertion that bald partisanship frequently comes to the fore.

[A notable example could be found in the opening remarks of Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse. He began by noting that Ms. Sotomayor's very presence at the hearing gave him "goose bumps," presumably by virtue of her gender and ethnicity. This apparently demonstrates just how far the US has come. To embellish the point, he repeated "goose bumps" in Spanish. His subsequent brief and general questions were "softballs"--providing opportunity for her to refer to her prior experience at the district and circuit court levels, while avoiding any pointed queries on her positions. Well, at least it provided some variety.]

Back and forth, red and blue, liberal and conservative, right down the line. Is this surprising? No. Is it predictable? Clearly. Should we be grateful to live in a place where such deliberations even take place? Undeniably. But is it any cause for discouragement? A bit, I think.

At least some of the time, these hearings seem much more about a certain slice of the political spectrum "winning," rather than a sober, balanced, painstaking endeavor to appoint qualified guardians of the Constitution. I realize this statement exposes my naivete.

Opinions, freedoms, prohibitions, laws, court cases, media treatment-all of these contribute to contemporary public discourse. Or, to use the German term, zeitgeist: "the general intellectual, moral, and cultural climate of an era, " according to Webster's 10th edition.

But eventually, or so it seems to me, the ebb and flow of public discourse distills down to the prevailing social mores of the day. Thankfully, there exists the right to express opinions on many sides of an issue. Freedom of expression is one of the fundamentals.

Yet, some issues and some notable court cases have undeniable moral dimensions. That word again: "moral." Ah, there's the rub. The inescapability of the concepts of "right" and "wrong". Like it or not, what shakes out in time is the ethos of a society. And that ethos has far-reaching implications, a whole that becomes greater than the individual elements that comprise it.

Much of what the United States has been about is individual freedom, respect for fellow citizens, loyalty to this (still) sovereign nation, a consensus on what is good and what is important, and protection of a Constitution that still seems to be the best shot at stable governance. But that foundation is not immutable. It is malleable; and vulnerable. It's reslilience is not absolute.

In the end, I think the role of publicly held values cannot be elimnated. This is where those who interpret the law come in. And I think it is not unreasonable to ask a candidate for the highest level of American jurisprudence to answer direct questions directly. Unless the candidate is more interested in the politics of getting confirmed than in a clear representation of who she is.

My .02.

No comments:

Post a Comment