NYC's Hot New Export? Supreme Court Justices

Martin Flaherty in AOL News, May 10, 2010

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(May 10) -- New York City is fast becoming a breeding ground for Supreme Court justices.

Less than a year after a New York native was sworn into the nation's highest court, President Barack Obama has picked another as his nominee to fill the seat that will be vacated by Justice John Paul Stevens this year.

If confirmed, Elena Kagan will join fellow New Yorkers Antonin Scalia, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor on the bench.

"I don't think that there's anything in the water or in the air that's causing this, but it's really notable," Jason Mazzone, a professor at Brooklyn Law School, told AOL News. "You would never find at any prior point in history four justices from the same city."

The fact that the Supreme Court is so stacked may not be a complete coincidence, say some legal experts, who point to the city's tremendous diversity as helping to create empathy and mutual understanding.

"In one sense New York's parochial and in another sense it's very diverse," Martin Flaherty, a professor at Fordham Law School in New York and a friend of Kagan's from Princeton University, told AOL News. "So when you grow up in New York, you've got an immediate exposure to all sorts of people, all sorts of classes."

Turns out, that diversity is evident even in the sampling of New Yorkers on the bench.

Scalia, who joined the court in 1986, was born in New Jersey but grew up in working-class Queens in the '40s and '50s, a time when the neighborhood was both diverse in its makeup and conservative in its views, and the pugnacious New York attitude was alive and well. "It was a really mishmash, sort of a New York-New York cosmopolitan neighborhood," he told "60 Minutes" in 2008.

Scalia's story is classically American: His father was an Italian immigrant who became a professor of romance languages at Brooklyn College, while his mother was a first-generation Italian-American who worked as a schoolteacher. Their only child got straight A's in school, leading him to Georgetown for college and then Harvard Law School.

Ginsburg, who joined the court in 1993, grew up in a Jewish family in a poor, immigrant neighborhood of Brooklyn in the '30s and '40s. By the time she graduated from high school, both her older sister and her mother had died. She went to Cornell University and Harvard Law, transferring to Columbia Law School when her husband got a job in New York.

In an interview with The New York Times, Ginsburg shared insight into her background while commenting on Sotomayor's infamous "wise Latina" comment. "I'm sure she meant no more than what I mean when I say: 'Yes, women bring a different life experience to the table,' " Ginsburg said. "All of our differences make the [Supreme Court] conference better. That I'm a woman, that's part of it. That I'm Jewish, that's part of it. That I grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., and I went to summer camp in the Adirondacks -- all these things are part of me."

Sotomayor, who was sworn in last August, grew up in the Bronx projects, the daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants. She didn't learn English until she was 9, when her father died, leaving her mother to raise her and her brother alone. Sotomayor was valedictorian of her high school, earning a spot at Princeton and then one at Yale Law School.

For her part, nominee Kagan grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, a middle-class area known for its Jewish character and quiet residential life -- far from the hardscrabble neighborhoods where Scalia, Ginsburg and Sotomayor were raised. She attended the prestigious Hunter College High School in the '70s, then Princeton and Harvard Law.

"You're not talking to somebody who's gone to an elite prep school from a country club background," Flaherty said. "New York gives her that grounding in the real world that never leaves you."

Still, some see the lack of geographical diversity on the country's highest court as a troubling new development. Not only are three of the current justices from New York City alone, but five are from New York state or New Jersey, leaving only four justices -- including the soon-to-retire Stevens -- to represent the remainder of the country geographically.

This trend could be problematic if the justices find it hard to relate to a farmer in Ohio or an auto worker in Detroit -- if, in Mazzone's words, the court is "tilted towards the interests and sensibilities of people on the Eastern seaboard."

But even more troubling to some is the recurrence of Princeton, Harvard and Yale in the educational backgrounds of the justices. Of the nine justices, only one -- Stevens -- did not attend Harvard or Yale Law School. Justice Samuel Alito and Sotomayor, like Kagan, went to Princeton for their undergraduate studies.

"I think the court suffers a little bit in that everybody comes from the Ivy League, comes from Harvard and Yale," Jamal Greene, a professor at Columbia Law School, told AOL News.

Mazzone shares this concern.

"If you're thinking about a court that is representative of the nation, there are certainly some great law schools that are not on the East Coast," he said. "For the rest of the country, there may be a real question about why she's the choice, given the makeup of the court."