Upon the announcement of the retirement of Associate Supreme Court Justice, David Souter, President Obama announced that he wanted to replace Souter with someone who has “that quality of empathy, of understanding and identifying with people’s hopes and struggles.”
Days later, the president made good on that promise by nominating Sonia Sotomayor to replace Souter. Based on Sotomayor’s past rulings, as well as comments in speeches and participating on panels, Mr. Obama accomplished his “empathy” goal. In a speech at Berkeley, Judge Sotomayor said, “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion as a judge than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.”
How does empathy, gender, race or experience reconcile with what is no less than the cornerstone of American jurisprudence, blind justice? What would empathetic justice look like? In my career as a business owner, I’ve had some experience with an empathetic judge who chose to peek under the blindfold she swore to wear when ruling on petitions brought before her. Here is that true story.
A salesperson was hired by me to call on prospects and customers of a company I owned. Since I knew I would be giving him proprietary pricing and sales strategies that were the intellectual property of my company, I asked him to sign a non-compete agreement when he was offered the job. By accepting, if he should leave my company for any reason, he would have to forgo operating in my industry within a reasonable geography and time frame. He signed and went to work.
Less than two years later, I discovered that he was making plans to quit, and in fact had already started his own new company which would compete directly with my business. Worse, he was actually telling my customers about his new venture in an attempt to subvert sales to him. Not only was his future behavior going to violate the non-compete agreement, but his disloyalty is against the law in our state. Immediately after he was fired for this infidelity, he opened his competing business with a storefront location.
In the subsequent non-jury lawsuit I brought to enforce the non-compete agreement, the District Court judge, who just happened to be a woman, listened to the facts, reviewed the evidence and ruled in my favor. The defendant should cease and desist operating his business for the period and geography he originally agreed to. Alas, he continued operating his business, in defiance of the court order.
Within six months, we were able to bring the man before the judge again with the evidence of his continued violation of the agreement and the court order. But instead of throwing the book at the defendant, incredibly, the judge instead dismissed her earlier ruling against him. Her reason? She had since discovered that her daughter knew a member of the defendant’s extended family who, as a teenager, had been killed in an automobile accident a few years earlier. The judge went on to say that she now felt the family had been through enough and, essentially, she didn’t want to place any more hardship on them.
Thus, I came face-to-face with judicial empathy and found it violated a valid contract, disregarded testimony, facts and evidence and preempted the constitutional right of this American citizen to petition the court with an expectation of receiving blind justice. My brush with touchy-feely justice cost me a few thousand dollars in damages and legal fees. But if empathy as a basis for deciding cases at the Supreme Court level becomes reality, I fear it will undermine two of the cornerstones of our nation: the sanctity of a contract and the judicial system that for more than 200 years has been the model for the rest of the world.
Recently, on my small business radio program, The Small Business Advocate Show, I talked about my experience with judicial empathy. Take a few minutes to listen, and be sure to leave your own thoughts and experiences.