THE SUPREMES and Me

by

09/19/2020

Neighborhood: Bronx, Brooklyn, Washington DC

Ordinarily, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the Supreme Court. I practiced law for forty years, reluctantly. But the news of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death tonight has me very agitated. 

Ruth was a tough old bird, a borough girl. Like her sisters on the Court, Sonia and Elena. All three are borough girls. I am obsessed with the boroughs of New York City. I once wrote 50,000 words describing the difference between the Bronx and Brooklyn. How the fact that the women on the Supreme Court were all New York City girls eluded me…well, I am just amazed. And apparently, this fact eluded many others. Even borough girls. Even borough girls who went to law school.

None of the men currently on the bench grew up anywhere near New York. Well, there was Scalia from Queens, which is, of course, a borough and has been since 1898. Yet, I still think of it as an expansion borough, the way I think of the Mets as an expansion baseball team, even though they have been in existence for fifty-eight years.

In the beginning, way back in 1981, there was Sandra Day O’Connor. It made perfect sense that the first woman elevated to the Supreme Court was a conservative Republican who played golf and ran the Phoenix Junior League. She has been described as thus: “with her mild flat voice and buttoned-down manner, with her gap-toothed smile and modest PTA hairdo, she could be Donna Reed at a gathering of kindly country doctors.”

Sandra and Ruth were born only three years apart but could have been on different planets. I had the privilege of hearing Ruth speak at a New York City Bar event. She was wearing an extremely fashionable and expensive pantsuit and spoke about how much she loved her job. Ruth 

Neither of Ruth’s parents attended college. Her father was a furrier, and  her mother worked in a garment factory. Ruth’s older sister died of meningitis at age six, and her mother was stricken with cancer when Ruth was in the 9th grade, and died the day before her high-school graduation. pastedGraphic.pngRuth was obviously brilliant and fiercely ambitious. She grew up in Midwood, a neighborhood filled with fiercely ambitious Jewish kids. James Madison High School has produced a long list of famous alumni:  Carole King, Bernie Sanders, Irwin Shaw, Chuck Schumer, Judge Judy Sheindlin, and to add a bit of color to this list of Ashkenazim, Chris Rock.

We had a lot of girls like Ruth at the Bronx High School of Science. Some of the Jewish ones went to Barnard; the lesbians went to Smith and many of the Black girls spread out to the Seven Sister schools, which were generous with their scholarships. The red diaper babies went to Reed, Oberlin or Antioch. The rest of us went to SUNY or CUNY schools. Maggie, our valedictorian, transferred to Yale in ’69, the year it was opened to women. 

She was definitely a Ruth—brilliant, confident, yet able to retain a modulated demeanor. Some women are just born that way. No one in my family, of course.

Sonia Sotomayor was also present that evening. Born twenty-one years after Ruth, she had a totally different story to tell. Sonia is my age, give or take two or three years. She spoke mostly of her career trajectory—how many breaks she caught and how kind people were to her. One day she found herself on a buffet line, right behind Manhattan DA Robert Morgenthau, who promptly offered her a job. Sonia worked as an Assistant District Attorney for five years before entering private practice. In 1991, George H.W. Bush nominated her to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. Sonia was enthusiastic in discussing her days as a trial judge. She was less enthusiastic while describing her promotions to the Second Circuit and later the Supreme Court. She missed hearing trials and missed New York City. A good portion of her speech centered around the loss of so many of her New York friends, her apartment on Bedford Street in the West Village and her carefully curated collection of Manhattan takeout menus. She played the hometown advantage masterfully, and I got the idea that she was sincere.

Elena is six years younger than Sonia, born at the end of the baby boom. She has no tragic struggles in her background. She’s a Manhattan girl, born and bred on the Upper West Side in the borough of entitlement. Her launch was not against all odds. By the time Elena joined the Supremes, no one was shocked by her ascendancy. Ruth and Sonia welcomed her, as did the other members of the bench. Elena came from a middle class, educated family. Her father was a lawyer and her mother taught at Hunter Elementary School, the most selective educational institution in New York City. Needless to say, Elena attended both Hunter Elementary and Hunter High School. She did undergraduate work at Princeton and graduate studies at Oxford and Harvard. She followed along on the traditional superstar trajectory—supervising editor of the Harvard Law Review, clerking on the D. C. Circuit Court of Appeals, and then for Thurgood Marshall on the Supreme Court. Elena went on to teach at the University of Chicago Law School and was then appointed by Senator Biden as Special Counsel for the Senate Judiciary Committee. She subsequently became Dean of Harvard Law School. By that time, none of this seemed out of the ordinary. Here was an extremely smart and articulate Manhattan girl (not such a rare bird) and, God bless her, she got herself some really good jobs.

Elena’s brothers are both schoolteachers (like their mother) and she is a lawyer (like her father). This might have provided a premise for a sitcom not too long ago. Now no one thinks twice about it.

When I was worrying about Ruth’s health problems, I read Sonia’s memoir and discovered that she was raised in the same crummy neighborhood that I grew up in; just a few blocks to the east. My family lived in a railroad flat and she lived in the projects. I often kvetch about how many cockroaches we had, and how my mother had to boil water for our baths. And in the circles I move in (mostly people who had unlimited access to hot water) I usually extract some sympathy. But Sonia would win any sympathy contest with me hands down. Her parents came to this country speaking only Spanish. Her father was an alcoholic. He died when she was nine years old. Sonia was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at the age of seven. She had to administer her own shots; no one else in the family was up to the task. If I had been born as Sonia, instead of Marissa, I might not have gotten through college. And if I did, the college would certainly not have been Princeton. Considering my phobia about needles, I might have been dead before I had even graduated from elementary school.

Listening to Sonia whine about missing her downtown takeout menus…well, there was something that seemed Jewish about it. And that made me think about how there’s something about myself. There’s something Puerto Rican about me. There were hardly any Jews left on Elder Avenue by the time I was growing up there in the 1960s. There was Leslie Mann, a gay boy who used to come over and play with my dolls. His mother was a Holocaust survivor and he did not have a father. And there was Debbie Lyman who lived next door. Her father was a lawyer who refused to move out of the neighborhood on the assumption that leaving would minimize his chances of becoming a judge. Her mother was a schoolteacher who had decorated the apartment to look like a Fred Astaire movie set. Debbie was adopted and, besides Leslie, the only Jewish child on the block. She attended a private school in Manhattan. Mrs. Lyman finally put her foot down and the family moved to Riverdale. Soon thereafter, Leslie Mann and his mother moved away as well. 

That left me with my next-door neighbors—Elsa, Margarita, Isabel and their crush worthy brother Ruben. I was horribly jealous of the family. The girls got to wear bridal gowns to their first communion, and their mother somehow got their long hair cleverly rolled into banana curls. By the time I got to junior high school, my Spanish was already pretty good, just from hanging around Elder Avenue.

There is one way in which I totally relate to Sonia and it has nothing to do with being fat or being from the Bronx. Neither of us are Ruth Bader Ginsburg or Elena Kagan. I know that I had to strategize in order to end up where I wanted to be, which was not in the Bronx. Sonia in her memoir emphasizes the support she received from both her mother and grandmother. But I get the distinct impression that she could not wait to depart the borough of our birth (it’s not known for great takeout menus).  But both of us will always be Bronx girls, no matter where we end up.

The present population of the United States is 328 million. Brooklyn? 2.5 million. The Bronx? 1.4 million. Manhattan? 1.6 million. The three boroughs constitute less than 2% of the population of this country. So unlikely, but true, that the Supremes all grew up in this tiny slice of the U.S.

Reading Sonia’s memoir reminded me of the landscape that formed us; the lesson we learned: Don’t take anything for granted. Don’t look back. Don’t turn down an opportunity unless it turns your stomach. Ogden Nash wrote the famous couplet: “The Bronx? No thonx.” I give thanks to the Bronx every day. The landscape formed me. I am sure that the same was true for Ruth and Brooklyn.

Here’s what I see coming, assuming we will be living in a post-Trump world: New York City will no longer have a lock on the Supremes. In fact, I have a strong feeling that soon enough, women will be in the majority on that bench. And they will hopefully not need to be raised in fierceness. The hometown advantage, fueled by borough chutzpah, will atrophy. Nor will a female candidate necessarily be Jewish or Puerto Rican or any pronounced ethnicity. Soon enough, perhaps, many candidates (male or female) will be hybrids—bi-racial, bi-religious, maybe even non-binary.

For me things got easier as I went along, and I believe things will continue to get better for many women in this country. Ruth had balls of steel and knew how to use them. Sonia had balls of steel as well, perhaps slightly smaller in size. And Elena, the baby of the trio, just seemed to do what any guy would do—be brilliant, take advantage of every opportunity and never drop the ball. She didn’t have to be fearsome or pretty.

Hopefully that will be the our new normal. A level playing field. Now wouldn’t that be lovely.

***

Marissa Piesman recently retired after practicing law for forty years. She is also the author of The Yuppie Handbook and the Nina Fischman mystery series.

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