May 29 update: I look at former Congressman Tom Tancredo’s charge that Sotomayor is part of a “Latino KKK” here.

With the announcement this morning that Obama will nominate Judge Sonia Sotomayor to fill David Souter’s seat on the Supreme Court, conservative critics have pounced on comments Sotomayor made about ethnicity, gender, and judging seven years ago.

In a lecture given at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law in 2002, Sotomayor said this:

I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.

I have a hunch that we’re all going to be seeing a lot of this quote in the next few weeks, so let’s take a look at it in context.

Sotomayor’s comment was framed as a response to something Justice Sandra O’Connor had said about the role of gender in the law. A wise old  man and a wise old woman, O’Connor had argued, would reach the same decisions in deciding cases.

But Sotomayor wasn’t so sure.

Wise men, she said, sometimes have blind spots. Wise men like Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes and Benjamin Cardozo had ruled that sex and race discrimination were constitutional, after all, and they did so as members of an all-white, all-male Supreme Court. (As Jeffrey Toobin noted on CNN after Sotomayor’s nomination, 107 of America’s 111 Supreme Court justices have been white men.)

Does this mean that white men can’t understand the perspectives of women and people of color? No. They can, Sotomayor said, and do. But “to understand takes time and effort,” and not everyone is willing and able to make that investment. “Hence, one must accept the proposition that … the presence of women and people of color on the bench” will make a difference in the decisions rendered.

If you believe that perfect objectivity is a goal that judges can and should strive to meet, then you may disagree with Sotomayor’s argument. But perfect objectivity is not Sotomayor’s goal — in that same speech she quoted Harvard Law professor Martha Minnow as saying that “there is no objective stance” available to a judge, “only a series of perspectives. No neutrality, no escape from choice.”

At the same time, she said, “I am reminded each day that I render decisions that affect people concretely and that I owe them constant and complete vigilance in checking my assumptions, presumptions and perspectives. … I can and do aspire to be greater than the sum total of my experiences.”

I’m a little nervous about Sotomayor’s position on students’ rights, as I noted a couple of weeks ago. But there’s a lot to like in this appointment.