Professor Henry Srebrnik

Professor Henry Srebrnik

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

New York Women and the U.S. Supreme Court

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

U.S. President Barack Obama has nominated Elena Kagan to become the 112th Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, filling the vacancy created by the retirement of Justice John Paul Stevens.

Kagan currently serves as Solicitor General of the United States, the lawyer who represents the federal government in cases that come before the Supreme Court.

Kagan grew up on Manhattan’s liberal, intellectual Upper West Side, the daughter of Robert Kagan, a graduate of Yale Law School who represented tenant associations, and Gloria Kagan, who taught at Hunter College Elementary School.

She attended Ivy League Princeton University as an undergraduate and obtained her law degree from Harvard Law School. She would become dean of that law school many years later. She has also been a professor at the University of Chicago Law School.

Should Kagan be confirmed by the U.S. Senate, there will be three liberal women from New York City on the Supreme Court, the other two being Ruth Bader Ginsburg, born in Brooklyn, and Sonia Sotomayor, from the South Bronx.

Ginsburg also graduated from an Ivy League University, Cornell, and at first also enrolled at Harvard Law School. When her husband took a job in New York City, she transferred to Columbia Law School and became the first woman to be on both the Harvard Law Review and the Columbia Law Review.

Like Kagan, she also has taught law, at Rutgers University and Columbia, before being appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in 1980. She was elevated to the Supreme Court in 1993.

Sotomayor, appointed to the Supreme Court last year, also graduated from Princeton and obtained her law degree from Yale, but has never taught. She practiced law in New York before becoming a federal judge on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York in 1992. Six years later, she joined the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, which comprises the states of Connecticut, New York, and Vermont.

While Kagan and Ginsburg are Jewish, Sotomayor is an Hispanic whose parents came from Puerto Rico. And while the latter two come from less affluent backgrounds than does Kagan, all three had parents who were committed to their children’s education.

Emily Goodman, another New York judge, has suggested that Ginsburg, Kagan, and Sotomayor advanced because of a New York dynamic that enabled each to see herself as going where others hadn’t pushed ahead.

“The New York woman – she’s a striver,” noted Ann Kirschner, dean of a branch college of the City University of New York.

They may have reached these heights because there is less discrimination against women and minorities these days, but the drive, intelligence and talent – the cultural capital – they bring with them is pure New York, of course. After all, for the past century, it’s been the centre of the world.