The Corpus Callosum

On Empathic Judges

Last night I heard a snippet of an interview with some Senator, who
expressed fear that the Supreme Court candidate, Sonia Sotomayor, would
let her feelings interfere with her judgment.  Evidently, this
was based upon Obama’s characterization of Ms. Sotomayor as “emphatic.”
 Although I can’t recall who the Senator was, these sentiments
are captured in
the following

Mr. Hatch, a longtime Judiciary Committee member,
said he would focus on whether the judge is committed to deciding cases
based on the law, not “personal feelings or politics.” Senator Mitch
McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, said he and his
colleagues want to be certain Judge Sotomayor will apply the law
even-handedly, despite her own “feelings or personal or political
preferences.” Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa, another member of the
Judiciary Committee, said the panel would take time to ensure that
Judge Sotomayor would “apply the law, not personal politics, feelings
or preferences.”

Very few people have no empathy.  Those who totally lack
empathy are usually sociopaths.  I think it is fair to say
that it would be dumb to nominate a sociopath to the Supreme Court.

But what about the notion that a person should not allow his or her
feelings to influence her or his decisions?  Is that even


The internal experiences that we call thoughts, and those we call
feelings, are both manifestations of brain activity.  Although
the brain activity for the respective experiences is different, being
centered in different parts of the brain, it simply is not possible to
separate the two.  These parts of the brain are linked.
 They continuously influence each other.  

If a person is sufficiently introspective — as I hope all judges are
— it is possible for that person to minimize the influence of emotion
upon cognition.  But in order to do that, one has to be aware
of their own emotional states.  Moreover, one has to be
cognizant of the effect that other persons have upon one’s own
emotional state.  That is part of what empathy is; it is a
necessary step in the process of inferring what emotions the other
person is experiencing.  The more mindful a person is,
regarding the interplay between thought and emotion, the more one is
able to act impartially.  For a judge, this is a desirable


  1. #1 Learned Foot
    May 28, 2009

    The Republicans don’t get irony. So when they read Anatole France — “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich, as well as the poor, to sleep under the bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread” — they just took it as a pithy distillation of their judicial philosophy.

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