Wednesday, May 12, 2010

A New York Bloc on the Supreme Court

Clockwise from top left, Ruth Fremson/The New York Times; bottom left, Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times - Clockwise from top left, childhood homes of Antonin Scalia, in Queens; Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in Brooklyn; Elena Kagan, in Manhattan; and Sonia Sotomayor, in the Bronx.

There will, perhaps, be little that the 4 native New Yorkers will agree on, but they do have their provenance in common. And, curiously, they are each from a different borough.

The Supreme Court has some justices who are liberals and some who are conservatives. It has some who see themselves as strict constructionists and some who probably do not. And then it has the justices who grew up riding the subway and the ones who grew up turning right on red. It has the justice who was the treasurer of the Go-Getters Club at James Madison High School in Brooklyn. It has the justice who watched “Perry Mason” on television in a housing project in the Bronx and decided that the star defense lawyer was less important than the judge. It has the justice who took part in a junior military training program at Xavier High School in Manhattan and carried his rifle home on the train to Queens. If the nomination of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court is confirmed, she would join three others in a distinct bloc. For the first time in the court’s history, said William Treanor, the dean of Fordham Law School, it would have four justices who grew up in New York City.

Two Jews, an Italian and a Puerto Rican: that expresses well what New York is, and has been.

Other notable justices spent all or part of their youth in the city, including Felix Frankfurter and Benjamin N. Cardozo. But if Ms. Kagan takes the seat being vacated by Justice John Paul Stevens, a Chicagoan, it will be an unusual moment for a city whose political influence has been slowly shrinking since the nation outgrew the original 13 colonies.

It has been a long time since New York's political power declined. Political not just as in elected representatives, but governmental.

Justice Scalia grew up in Elmhurst, in what he once called “a really mishmash sort of a New York,” with Germans, Irish and Puerto Ricans. He went to Public School 13, where he got straight A’s, and Xavier, the Jesuit school in Manhattan, where he was first in his class and was in the military program.

Elmhurst is now Indian, Latino, but more Colombians that Puerto Ricans.

He said he realized that New Yorkers were assertive when his high school band went to march in a parade in Washington “These people just stood there and looked at us, you know?” he told the CBS News program “60 Minutes” in 2008. “In New York, people say, ‘Hey, play something for us, you know? You bums, why don’t you play something?’ They were — they were alive, they were confrontational.”

So is he, assertive, and acerbic (which I think is a very common adjective used when describing his style of questioning in the Court).

Three of the four New Yorkers — Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor and Ms. Kagan, if she is confirmed — would form the court’s liberal wing with Justice Stephen G. Breyer. Professor Bonventre of Albany Law School said that the “ethnic-gender-religious composition of the liberals on the court” would underscore their differences with the conservative majority. “For most New Yorkers, they will look at the liberal minority and say, ‘That’s us, that’s our America,’ ” Professor Bonventre said, “and so when the court renders liberal decisions and you have all of those four, the three women and the Jewish guy, it will make complete sense to New Yorkers, whereas for the South and the Bible Belt, people are going to say, ‘They don’t understand the rest of America.’ ”

But Martin Flaherty, a professor at Fordham Law School who knew Ms. Kagan when they were undergraduates at Princeton, said that being a judge from New York did not mean “everyone is going to be a liberal or a conservative. “Witness Scalia,” Mr. Flaherty said. “But there’s a certain toughness, mental toughness, to spending time in New York. That is true of all four New Yorkers. None of them is a pushover.”

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