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In Court Nominees, Is Obama Looking For Empathy By Another Name?

Publication Date: 
April 25, 2010
The New York Times
Peter Baker

Professor Pamela Karlan is quoted on the use of the word "empathy" as part of President Obama's criteria for nominating a U.S. Supreme Court justice. Peter Baker of the New York Times filed this story:

Empathy is out. Understanding ordinary lives is in. Is there a difference? President Obama is about to find out.

A year after Mr. Obama made “empathy” one of his main criteria in picking his first Supreme Court justice, he is avoiding the word, which became radioactive, as he picks his second nominee. Instead, he says he wants someone with “a keen understanding of how the law affects the daily lives of the American people.”

The issue is more than semantic. At the heart of the debate over Mr. Obama’s vision for the Supreme Court are sharply contrasting views about the role of a judge. The president emphasizes that while adhering to the rule of law, judges should also be able to see life through the eyes of those who come before the bench. His critics call that a prescription for twisting decisions to reach a desired outcome rather than the one mandated by the letter of the law.


Pamela S. Karlan, a Stanford Law School professor who many on the left wish Mr. Obama would nominate for the Supreme Court, said the real issue is that many people do not understand the difference between empathy and sympathy. Empathy means being able to imagine oneself in the condition or predicament of another, while sympathy means sharing the feelings of another to the point of compassion or pity.

“The problem with the word empathy isn’t the concept, it’s the confusion,” Ms. Karlan said. “People don’t want judges who say, ‘Oh, I feel so bad for you I’m going to disregard the law.’ Nobody wants that in a judge, on the left or the right. But I think everybody wants judges to understand people and how the law operates in their lives.”