Women of the Supreme Court

A few years ago I realized that I could name more Duggar children than members of the Supreme Court.  I decided to change that and tried to do some research on the history of the SCOTUS, but it didn’t take long before I was bored and moved on to other pursuits.  But, with the SCOTUS being back in session I thought it might be time to take a closer look at the women on the Supreme Court.

supreme court women
Paul J. Richards / AFP-Getty Images; Photo by Mark Wilson / Getty Images

When I was in elementary school, Sandra Day O’Connor as the first female to serve on the Supreme Court was still a big deal and set in my mind that a woman on the Supreme Court is important.  So who are the women on the Supreme Court and why should we care about them?

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

I learned about Ruth Bader Ginsburg mostly from a New York Times interview done by Emily Bazelon and published on July 7, 2009.  I recommend it highly because after reading it, Ginsburg is my newest feminist icon.  My impression of the interview was that she is honest and inspirational.

The Basics:

Ruth Bader Ginsburg is the longest serving female Supreme Court justice.  Ginsburg was appointed by Bill Clinton in 1993 and tends towards liberal politics in her decisions.  She attended Harvard Law School in 1956 when she was one of nine women in a class of over 500.  She has experienced more than her share of gender discrimination on her rise to the Supreme Court and has admitted that she believes she was a tenured professor at Columbia in 1972 due to Affirmative Action.

Why is she important?

For many, Ginsburg’s stance on abortion rights is one of her most notable and controversial contributions to the Supreme Court.  She has explicitly stated that “the government has no place making that choice for a woman.” She advocates removing barriers to abortion, including waiting periods and restrictions imposed by Medicaid that make it difficult for impoverished women to obtain abortions. A statement that Ginsburg made in the NYTimes interview that she “had thought that at the time Roe was decided, there was concern about population growth and particularly growth in populations that we don’t want to have too many of” was taken by the right-wing media as evidence that Ginsburg is an advocate of abortion eugenics, to reduce the number of low-income, presumably minority, babies.  But, no matter your position on the abortion debate, it’s undeniable that her presence on the Supreme Court is significant.

Other interesting facts:

She and Justice Scalia are reportedly BFF and like to go out to eat and go to the opera together.  It’s a shame there is not an OK! Magazine for the Supreme Court as I imagine they could get a lot of mileage out of speculation over the relationship between Scalia and Ginsburg.

Sonia Sotomayor

If, like me, you have an embarrassingly limited knowledge of the Supreme Court the only knowledge you may have of Justice Sonia Sotomayor is the controversy around her referring to herself as a “wise Latina.”  The Wise Latina fiasco, you may recall, was when she stated, “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life” at a lecture at UC Berkeley.  This was a phrase she had apparently used in other speeches and when talk began to circulate that she was a candidate for Supreme Court justice a lot of white Republicans (Rush Limbaugh and the like) started crying “racism” because of that statement. Obviously there is more to the third female justice and first Latina to ever serve on the Supreme Court.

The Basics:

Sonia Sotomayor was the first Supreme Court justice to be appointed by Barack Obama.  She fills the seat vacated by Justice David Souter who retired in 2009.  Sotomayor was sworn in to the Supreme Court on August 8, 2009.  Like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor was one of a small number of women in her undergraduate class in Princeton, and one of an even smaller number of Latinas.  She went on to Yale Law School and became a litigator when she graduated.  Her experience is diverse ““ she has more federal judicial experience than any justice in the past 100 years, according to her profile on the White House’s official page.

Why is she important?

Because Sonia Sotomayor has such an extensive judicial history, she has ruled on a number of important and prominent cases.  Sotomayor’s most well-known decision, when she was on the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, was in the case of Ricci v. DeStefano in which 17 white firefighters and one Hispanic firefighter sued the city of New Haven, CT after they were denied promotions when a promotional examination yielded no black candidates. Sotomayor sided with the majority that the firefighters could not sue the city for reverse discrimination.  This decision was later overturned by the Supreme Court of the United States.  However, Sotomayor’s position in that case indicates that she does not believe in “reverse discrimination” and that the plaintiffs had no grounds to sue for racial discrimination.  Sotomayor also has a history of rulings in cases that advocate for people with disabilities.  In Bartlett v. New York State Board of Law Examiners she ruled in favor of a woman who sued to get extra time to take the bar due to a reading and learning disability.  Sotomayor also wrote the dissenting opinion, in favor of the plaintiffs, in a case (E.E.O.C. v. J.B. Hunt Transport) where applicants were rejected from a trucking company because they were taking medications.

Other interesting facts:

Sonia Sotomayor is bilingual in Spanish and English.  She learned to speak English fluently at age 9.  She has a reputation as a tough judge to sit in front of and has been described as belligerent.

Elena Kagan

Elena Kagan is the most recent Justice on the Supreme Court.  She was sworn in on August 7, 2010.  Again, my limited knowledge of the Supreme Court rears its ugly head and all I knew about Kagan was that people were gossiping that she’s clearly a lesbian because she played softball and has never been married.  Here is what I learned about her.

The Basics:

Kagan is filling the seat vacated by John Paul Stevens.  Kagan has actually never served as a judge on a state or federal level.  The last time that a person was appointed to the Supreme Court who had not been a judge was when Nixon appointed William Rehnquist and Lewis Powell in 1972.  Kagan has had her own private law practice and was a law professor at the University of Chicago Law School (1991-1997) and Harvard Law School (1999-2003) and was the dean of Harvard Law School from 2003-2009.  Most recently she served as the United States Solicitor General in 1999.  The Solicitor General is the person who argues for the United States whenever the government is party to a case.

Why Is She Important?

Because Kagan has never served as a judge what we know about her stance on important issues does not come from legal decisions.  She has been on record as being opposed to the military’s ban on service by gays and lesbians.  It is anticipated that she will be a fairly moderate judge but her overall impact on the Supreme Court remains to be seen.

Other interesting facts:

She refuses to choose between Team Edward and Team Jacob!

This upcoming Supreme Court session will be the first in history where three women have served at the same time.  A 2006 study by the Wellesley Centers for Women concluded that, “a critical mass of three or more women can cause a fundamental change in the boardroom and enhance corporate governance.”  Sumru Erkut, one of the researchers in that study, believes that the “critical mass” of three women extends beyond just the business world and will make a difference on the Supreme Court as well.  She writes that having three women in a small group is significant, not because the women will always agree, but because what the women say is no longer dismissed as only the woman’s point of view.  Instead each woman’s perspective is elevated and the dynamic of discussion is changed.  Only time will tell if the presence of three women on the Supreme Court really does make a difference in the way cases are deliberated or the conclusions that are drawn.  But, speaking as someone who until now knew next to nothing about the Supreme Court, I am looking forward to paying attention and continuing to follow the careers of these women.

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