Whether diabetes — or any health condition — should be a factor in the nomination of a Supreme Court justice is being raised by President Obama's choice of Sonia Sotomayor.
Sotomayor was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes when she was 8 years old. People with the condition have shorter life spans — seven to 10 years shorter, according to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. Sotomayor will be 55 next month.
Before the appointment, some in the blogosphere raised her health as an issue, noting that Supreme Court justices may serve for life — often several decades.
But diabetes experts say that not all diabetics live shorter lives.
"To automatically jump to the conclusion that it's going to shorten her life span, of course, is not at all fair," says University of Washington endocrinologist Paul Robertson.
He says the shorter life span happens when some people with diabetes don't take care of themselves. With proper treatment, Sotomayor and others can live long lives.
"I think the pertinent question is how is she dealing with it, how's she taking care of it? Is she doing a good job?" says Robertson. "Those kinds of questions make sense because you'd ask the same questions of somebody with a chronic disease like heart disease or cancer or leukemia."
Robertson, the president for medicine and science for the American Diabetes Association, says treatment now is advanced and easy. "You can handle diabetes. It's just basically, you need to do the right things. You need to check your blood glucose, make rational decisions about how much insulin to give yourself and do it. So it's not rocket science these days."
The White House noted that Sotomayor has lived with her diabetes for decades and that she has successfully kept it under control with insulin injections.
Disclosing Health Unusual
Political scientist David Atkinson says the fact that Sotomayor's been open about her diabetes is something new when it comes to the Supreme Court.
Atkinson, a professor at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, who has written about the health of Supreme Court justices, says even recent and current members of the high court have kept their medical issues hidden.
"Chief Justice Rehnquist was very reluctant to disclose his health difficulties," he says of Rehnquist's battle with thyroid cancer. "And Ruth Bader Ginsburg did not initially disclose her cancer difficulty. But subject to a certain amount of media pressure, she began to do so." (Ginsburg was reluctant to disclose her colon cancer in 1999. But earlier this year, she was quick to go public when she was diagnosed with a pancreatic tumor.)
Atkinson says Sotomayor's health problems are mild compared to those of other justices. "The consensus seems to be this is not a disqualifying kind of ailment," he says. "You know, after all, John Paul Stevens was put on the court by President Ford after he had open heart surgery. And Justice Stevens has served for a very long time on the Supreme Court."
Chai Feldblum, a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center who has a specialty in disability civil rights law, says Sotomayor's example could reduce the stigma that exists around diabetes.
"It matters that a nominee for the Supreme Court is someone who acknowledges she has diabetes and that forms an aspect of her life," says Feldblum. Disability civil rights groups noted that, at a time when other judges had limited the scope of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Sotomayor ruled in favor of disabled plaintiffs, including a woman with learning disabilities who'd gotten extra time on tests during law school but then was denied the same accommodation when she tried to take the bar exam.
Still, people with diabetes say they often have reason to hide their condition: Sometimes they face discrimination.
Just last week, a federal jury found the FBI had discriminated when it refused to hire police officer Jeff Kapche to be a special agent because he managed his Type 1 diabetes with insulin injections. One diabetes blog said the Sotomayor nomination showed that people with diabetes now can break the glass ceiling for chronic illnesses.