One, perhaps, was inevitable (it’s a big city); two you could still call a fluke. But for all three female Supreme Court justices to have been born and bred in New York—that, frankly, starts to look like more than an accident.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan may have grown up under different circumstances and in different boroughs, but all of them are recognizably, and in some cases iconically, New York gals. Ginsburg came of age in forties Brooklyn, where she was confirmed at the East Midwood Jewish Center and attended the storied James Madison High School (one generation before Chuck Schumer and two before Chris Rock). Sotomayor, an incorruptible Yankees fan, grew up in the Bronx housing projects in the sixties and spent the bulk of her professional life in this city. (For exercise, she famously power-walked the Brooklyn Bridge.) And now there’s Kagan—a Mets fan this time—who grew up in the West Seventies, her father a tenant lawyer, and her mother a teacher at Hunter College Elementary School. With one simple exchange during her Senate confirmation hearings, she revealed an entire sensibility. “Christmas Day bomber—where were you at on Christmas Day?” asked South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham. “You know,” Kagan answered, “like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant.”
It’s too early to say whether there’s something about these three women’s jurisprudence that screams New York City. Sotomayor’s been on the bench since last August, and Kagan for only four months. “But all three women justices are perceived—rightly so, I think—as being relatively liberal and as full supporters of women’s equality,” says Suzanne B. Goldberg, director of the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law at Columbia. “Both of these are values New York tends to breed—and values most New Yorkers are proud to claim.” (Of course, she adds, Antonin Scalia grew up in Queens, and his intellectual disposition is a good deal more conservative. But isn’t lack of predictability a New York trait too?) Stylistically, there’s no mistaking where these women are from. “They’re passionate and outspoken,” says Goldberg. “None is shy and retiring on the bench. And in that sense, they’re quite typical of New York.” Sotomayor especially. Last year, on her first day on the job, she asked as many questions during oral arguments as the chief justice, John G. Roberts Jr., and she remains one of the most talkative of the lot. “When are you going to avoid the needless deaths that were reported in this record?” she demanded during a recent argument about prison overcrowding. “When are you going to avoid or get around people sitting in their feces for days in a dazed state?”
Say what you want about New York women: They’re not timid. Not in speech, not in opinions. And not in their fashion choices, either. As Goldberg notes, who else but three New York women would find the classiest, most formidable way to spend the rest of their lives in black?