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Kagan would be high court's third — New Yorker?

Both female justices on the Supreme Court hail from New York. What is it about the city? 'The New York woman, she's a striver,' says one expert.

May 12, 2010|By Geraldine Baum and Tina Susman, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from New York — Ruth from Brooklyn, Sonia from the Bronx and now Elena from Manhattan?

If President Obama gets his way, the Supreme Court will have three women justices for the first time. But the focus on this historic moment for women in the law has obscured another defining trait shared by this trio — all were raised not far from the No. 2 subway line that connects those three New York City boroughs. (The first female justice, Sandra Day O'Connor, grew up in the wilds of Arizona.)

New York justices: An article in Section A on May 12 about women from New York who serve on the U.S. Supreme Court said nominee Elena Kagan was one of the first girls to have a bat mitzvah in her Reconstructionist synagogue near Lincoln Center. The synagogue, Lincoln Square Synagogue, is an Orthodox congregation. —

New York justices: A front-page article in Wednesday's Section A about women from New York who serve on the U.S. Supreme Court said that Justice Sonia Sotomayor's parents were Puerto Rican immigrants. Puerto Ricans are citizens of the United States. —

However much a young girl may be pitied by non-New Yorkers for having to come of age in this crowded, sharp-elbowed, grasping city of show-offs, it can also condition her to compete and shine in a male-dominated world like the law.

Apparently finding a seat on a subway is decent training for finding a seat on the highest court in the land.

Surviving the city's obstacles and soaking up its energy are among the experiences that helped Ruth Bader Ginsburg of Flatbush, Brooklyn, and Sonia Sotomayor of the South Bronx ascend to the Supreme Court, and made Elena Kagan of Manhattan's Upper West Side Obama's nominee.

That the high court could end up with three products of Gotham makes complete sense — even if it's also a pure coincidence, said Ann Kirschner, dean of City University of New York's Macaulay Honors College, which draws brainy public school students from around the city.

"When you mention a French woman it sets up certain reverberations," Kirschner said. "She's chic, she's Chanel, she knows which wine glass to use. The New York woman — she's a striver, she's a tummler [Yiddish for someone who shakes things up].

"And now," added Kirschner, unapologetic about her New York chauvinism, "she's a Supreme Court justice."

Whereas Ginsburg and Sotomayor came from struggling immigrant families, Kagan, the daughter of a lawyer and public school teacher, grew up far more comfortably. All three had parents who were committed to their children's education, which after New York continued at Ivy League universities and law schools.

Kagan's neighborhood was also far scrappier during her childhood than it is now. When she lived at 75th Street and West End Avenue, a crime-ridden transient hotel was around the corner. ( Charles Evans Hughes, the 11th chief justice, lived on the same block at the start of the 20th century. What are the odds of that?)

The Upper West Side would not experience the full impact of gentrification until long after Kagan had graduated from Hunter College High School, a competitive public school, in 1977. But that should not be seen as a negative, said Mary C. Waters, a sociologist who has written extensively about children, particularly those of immigrants, growing up in New York City.

A Flatbush native herself, Waters said the grinding and pushy nature of the city had , in fact, helped advance legions of high achievers. Squeezing onto a subway during rush hour requires just the right combination of strategy, speed and an appearance of politesse.

And subways can be liberating for young New Yorkers, Waters noted: "You don't have to have your parents take you to a museum or the library or to see a play. If you have the ambition or the interest, the whole city is open to you."

Purvi Sevak, who graduated from Hunter in 1991 and now teaches economics there, described it as a hothouse of independent-minded, smart New York kids — and Kagan was "the quintessential Hunter girl.… She's outspoken but witty. She's a tough cookie, but part of that is New York."

Added Sevak: "New Yorkers are stereotypically a confrontational people. We like to debate and argue. Even if we agree with someone, we feel the need to play devil's advocate, so it's not surprising three strong women would be coming out of New York City" and ending up on the Supreme Court.

New York has done well by men, too.

Of 111 Supreme Court justices, 15 were born here or spent long periods of their lives and careers in the city, according to New York Magazine. (This week, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg laid claim to one justice who was only a New Yorker briefly — Antonin Scalia, who was born in New Jersey but attended grade school in Queens.)

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