the supremes

The Supreme Court and New York: A Brief History

With President Obama’s nomination of Bronx-born Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, the Statue of Liberty suddenly isn’t the only robed woman in Gotham people care about. Much has already been said about the role that gender, ethnicity, and ideology play in court selections — but less discussed is the influence of New York through the centuries. Here, a primer.

Of the 110 Supreme Court justices who have served, 14 have been New Yorkers — either attending law school or serving as a lawyer or judge in the city — more than any other district. (This includes Felix Frankfurter, who attended New York Law School before transferring to Harvard Law in 1902.)

Total years of New Yorkers’ cumulative service on the Court since its inception in 1789: 212.

The Court’s first Chief Justice was a New Yorker — founding father John Jay (1789–1795).

The first meeting place for the Supreme Court was the Merchants Exchange Building at 55 Wall Street. The Court then moved to Philadelphia’s City Hall and various spare rooms in the U.S. Capitol, finally getting its own building in 1935.

We have a New Yorker to thank for the confirmation process: In 1925, some senators were worried that Justice Stone was too chummy with Wall Street, so he proposed the then-novel idea of meeting with the Judiciary Committee to answer some questions.

When Samuel Blatchford joined the Court in 1882, he replaced Ward Hunt, who replaced Samuel Nelson in 1873, who replaced Smith Thompson in 1845 — all four of them New Yorkers.

Two justices have run for governor of New York while serving on the court. John Jay won, resigned from the Supreme Court in 1795, and lasted as governor until 1801. Smith Thompson lost in 1828.

New York’s governor turned president, FDR, appointed eight justices thanks to his four-term presidency. That’s second only to George Washington.

Two of the famed Three Musketeers — ultraliberal justices who helped usher in New Deal programs under FDR — were New Yorkers themselves: Justice Harlan Fiske Stone and Benjamin Nathan Cardozo (who was the second Jew and the first Latino on the court — and arguably the first homosexual on the court).

Several New Yorkers joined the Court without law degrees (the most recent was Robert H. Jackson, who served on the court from 1941–1954).

Many of the city’s top lawyers (and financiers/bankers) owe their jobs to New Yorker justices: Blatchford founded what is now Cravath Swaine & Moore and Charles Evan Hughes founded what is now Hughes Hubbard & Reed, which was retained by the U.S. Treasury last year to administer the bailout.

Brooklyn-born Ruth Bader Ginsburg is currently the only New Yorker on the bench (doubly so for also graduating first in her class at Columbia Law School).

But we can plausibly lay claim to Antonin Scalia too. He attended grade school in Queens and Manhattan, but was born in Jersey and did his formal schooling at Georgetown in Washington, D.C., and at Harvard Law before becoming a professor at UVA Law, so he is not usually counted as a NYC judge.

Sotomayor once wanted to become a NYPD detective because of her love for Nancy Drew mysteries. She told the New York Times that when she first moved from the Bronx to attend Princeton University, she felt like “a visitor landing in an alien country.”

Sotomayor got her law legs under Robert Morgenthau, Manhattan’s district attorney since 1975 and a legend who is widely acknowledged as the real-life basis for Law & Order’s district attorney Adam Schiff. She then worked as a lecturer at Columbia Law since 1999 and as an adjunct at NYU Law from 1998 to 2007.

Some of Sotomayor’s high-profile rulings in New York included siding with the New York Times that it was free to license freelancers’ work in archives, a ruling allowing The Wall Street Journal to publish Vince Foster’s suicide note, and a ruling that a Seinfeld-based trivia book infringed upon the sitcom’s copyrights. Most famously, she single-handedly ended the 1994 MLB players’ strike with her ruling in 1995.

The Supreme Court and New York: A Brief History