March 30, 2022

The NYC's Women of the Supreme Court

The NYC's Women of the Supreme Court

A portrait of Susan Birnbaum with her trademark red hair.
Written by Sheena Garciano
Published
March 30, 2022

The NYC's Women of the Supreme Court

This was written in 2020 to honor the three New York Women on the U.S. Supreme Court- Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan. Sadly Ruth Bader Ginsburg died on September 18, 2020. I am continuing to honor her for her invaluable contributions. 

Sandra Day O'Connor ( Image by PICRYL )

It will be missed If I will not mention Sandra Day O’Connor who was appointed by Ronald Reagan as the first woman to the Court. She was the trailblazer.

She was born in El Paso raised on a ranch where she branded cattle, shot coyotes, and jackrabbits, and lived 9 miles from her nearest neighbor.

Although her childhood was quite different, like the New Yorkers, she excelled academically. At 16 she attended Stanford University and at 22 graduated from its Law School.

Maybe like our NY bagels, it’s something in the water that “produced” these impressive women. Ruth Bader Ginsberg grew up in Brooklyn, Sonia Sotomayor in the Bronx, and Elena Kagan in Manhattan. Their families were recent arrivals.

They did not exactly arrive on the Mayflower. Ruth’s father was a Russian-Jewish immigrant and her mother was born in NYC to Austrian Jews. Sonia’s parents were from Puerto Rico. Elena’s grandparents were European Jewish immigrants.

They graduated from New York City High Schools with honors. Ruth from James Madison H.S. Where she was at the top of her class. Sonia was valedictorian at Cardinal Spellman and Elena was valedictorian at Hunter College H.S. They went to prestigious colleges - Ruth to Cornell, Sonia and Elene went to Princeton. They excelled and graduated Phi Beta Kappa.

Ruth married right out of college and later attended Harvard and Columbia Law Schools. Sonia went directly to Yale Law School and Elena attended Oxford University where she received a Master's in Philosophy and then went on to Harvard.

The Painting of all four Justices hangs in the National Gallery
( Image by Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP )

Their mothers greatly influenced them. Ruth’s mother Celia often spoke of the value of education and regretted that she had to forego her own so that her brother could go to college.

Sonia credits her mother Celina as her “life’s inspiration” and vividly remembers the Britannica Encyclopedia set her mother purchased at great expense and much sacrifice.

Elena’s mother Ruth, a teacher at Hunter College Elementary School, also preached the power of education. Her father, Robert, an attorney and an activist specializing in tenant law were also very influential.

The importance of education in their lives is also reflected in that all three of them taught at prestigious Law schools.

Here are things you should know about Joan Ruth Ginsburg:

  • Born in Brooklyn on March 15, 1933.
  • An excellent student and had receive a scholarship to Cornell University. 
  • She met Martin Ginsburg while at Cornell.
  • Ruth graduated in ‘53 and was the highest-ranking female in her class. 
  • Married Martin 1 month after graduating. 
  • They moved to Oklahoma where Martin fulfilled his ROTC obligation. 
  • Ruth worked for the S.S. Administration.
  • Enrolled at Harvard Law School, became one of 9 women in a class of 500 men. 
  • She became the 1st woman member of the Harvard Law Review
  • Transferred to Columbia to earn her law degree in ‘59 and was the first woman to be on two major law reviews.
  • Rejected by Felix Frankfurter for clerkship due to her gender. Got clerkship under Judge Edward Palmieri from ‘62-63.
  • Became a professor at Rutgers University Law School in ‘63. Got paid less than her male counterparts.

As a result of these experiences, she became interested in gender equality and developed a law school case book on sex discrimination.

In ‘72 she co-founded the ACLU Women’s Rights Project. By ‘74 over 300 gender discrimination cases were submitted. Ruth argued 6 cases and won 5. Using a strategy suggested by her secretary the word “gender” was used to refer to the issue. It was felt that the word “sex” would distract the judge.

Aug. 10, 1993, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg takes the court oath from Chief Justice William Rehnquist, right, during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington. Ginsburg's husband Martin holds the Bible and President Bill Clinton watches at the left. (AP Photo/Marcy Nighswander, File)

Sonia Sotomayor (left) is accompanied by her brother, Juan Luis Sotomayor, and her mother, Celina Sotomayor, as she takes the oath from Chief Justice John Roberts to become a Supreme Court justice Saturday in Washington.
( J. Scott Applewhite/AP )

Here are things you should know about Sonia Maria Sotomayor:

  • She was born in the Bronx on June 24, 1954.
  • At 7 she was diagnosed with childhood diabetes and then her father died when she was 8.
  • A big fan of Nancy Drew & TV’s Perry Mason. 
  • At Cardinal Spellman H.S. she was a “star”- active in public speaking and student government. 
  • Received a full scholarship to Princeton. There as a member of the University’s discipline committee she started to develop her legal skills.
  • A member of Phi Beta Kappa and graduated Summa Cum Laude.
  • Awarded the Pyne Prize - the highest undergraduate academic award.
  • Before heading to Yale Law School in ‘76 Sonia married her High School sweetheart Kevin Edward Noonan at St Patrick’s Cathedral. They amicably divorced 7 years later.
  • At Yale, she was Editor for the Law Review and received her degree in ‘79. 
  • Following her graduation, she worked as a prosecutor, a litigator & a judge in various jurisdictions for 18 years. 
  • In ‘91 she fulfilled a childhood dream when Daniel Patrick Moynihan recommended her for a federal judgeship. 
  • The youngest & the 1st Puerto Rican woman to serve as a judge in the U.S. Federal Court. 

One of her rulings ended the 232-day Baseball Strike in ‘94. Contrary to sexual stereotypes she said, “I hope none of you assumed I was not a baseball fan. You don’t grow up in the South Bronx without knowing baseball.” 

In May of 2009, President Obama nominated her to David Souter’s seat making Sonia the third woman and the first Hispanic on the Supreme Court.  I guess Daniel Patrick Moynihan called it.

Here are things you should know about Elena Kagan:

  • She was born in the Bronx on June 24, 1954.
  • At 7 she was diagnosed with childhood diabetes and then her father died when she was 8.
  • A big fan of Nancy Drew & TV’s Perry Mason. 
  • At Cardinal Spellman H.S. she was a “star”- active in public speaking and student government. 
  • Received a full scholarship to Princeton. There as a member of the University’s discipline committee she started to develop her legal skills.
  • A member of Phi Beta Kappa and graduated Summa Cum Laude.
  • Awarded the Pyne Prize - the highest undergraduate academic award.
  • Before heading to Yale Law School in ‘76 Sonia married her High School sweetheart Kevin Edward Noonan at St Patrick’s Cathedral. They amicably divorced 7 years later.
  • At Yale, she was Editor for the Law Review and received her degree in ‘79. 
  • Following her graduation, she worked as a prosecutor, a litigator & a judge in various jurisdictions for 18 years. 
  • In ‘91 she fulfilled a childhood dream when Daniel Patrick Moynihan recommended her for a federal judgeship. 
  • The youngest & the 1st Puerto Rican woman to serve as a judge in the U.S. Federal Court. 

One of her rulings ended the 232-day Baseball Strike in ‘94. Contrary to sexual stereotypes she said, “I hope none of you assumed I was not a baseball fan. You don’t grow up in the South Bronx without knowing baseball.” 

In May of 2009, President Obama nominated her to David Souter’s seat making Sonia the third woman and the first Hispanic on the Supreme Court.  I guess Daniel Patrick Moynihan called it.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., administers the Constitutional Oath to Elena Kagan in the Justices' Conference Room on Saturday, August 7, 2010. Jeffrey P. Minear, Counselor to the Chief Justice, holds the Bible. Witnesses included Marc and Irving Kagan (brothers) and Justices John Paul Stevens, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg & Sonia Sotomayor.
( Image by Steve Petteway, Collection of the Supreme Court of the US )

In conclusion, as I said, maybe it is the water but New York is certainly proud of these amazing and awesome women. I hope that Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan will follow their colleague Ruth Bader Ginsburg and be honored with statues in the future.

For inquiries and questions about tours ( In-person or Virtual ), you can send us an email or call. Stay tuned for Susan's next new blog!

SusanSez was founded by Susan Birnbaum. Susan has had a lifelong interest in history. Susan is a twenty year member of the Guides Association of NYC, and a member of The Bronx, Brooklyn, and New York Historical Societies. In addition to all of this; she is also a docent at at the Museum of the City of New York. She is also the recipient of The Bronx Tourism Award from The Bronx Tourism Council for her unparalleled commitment to sharing the rich history of The Bronx.
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram