Things You Never Knew About the Supreme Court Justices

| June 20, 2013
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June is here at last, and with that summer times at the Russian River, LGBT Pride celebrations, and the season finale of my favorite show, The Supreme Court. Yep, that’s right, I’m talking about the sensational time when the nation’s highest court hands down its decisions on the hot topics of the year. This year promises rulings on affirmative action, the Voting Rights Act, the Defense of Marriage Act, and our own state’s Proposition 8.

I’ve always fostered a random interest in the institution, but this was kicked into overdrive in recent days after picking up Jeffrey Toobin’s Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court, in which the New Yorker writer turns the past few decades of the court into a page-turner full of alliances and betrayals, civil rights victories and presidential election meddling. Since you probably slept through history class, it’s about time you got to know the 9 most powerful people in the country who are making important decisions on your behalf.


RUTH BADER GINSBURG

Ginsburg was quite the precocious tween. She was a cheerleader, the editor of her high school paper, a cello player in the orchestra, and was designated as a “rabbi” at her summer camp.

When she entered Harvard Law School in 1956, she was 1 of 9 women out of 500. They were each asked why they were taking the place of a man by the dean.

As a litigator, she argued 6 cases in front of the Supreme Court and won 5 of them, all of them victories for gender equality, which has led many to consider her the Thurgood Marshall of the feminist movement.

Despite her frail appearance (she is said to be 5 feet tall and 100 pounds) and two bouts with cancer, she is quite the presence in the Supreme Court exercise room. Her late husband had boasted that she can do 25 push ups and her trainer uses her physical successes as a way of shaming younger Justices who are not performing up to the 80 year old’s level.

Appointed to the Court by Bill Clinton in 1993, Ginsburg gave a beautiful speech upon her nomination, referencing her late mother who succumbed to cancer the day before Ruth’s high school graduation. She had this to say: “I pray that I may be all that she would have been had she lived in an age when women could aspire and achieve and daughters are cherished as much as sons.” Bill Clinton cried.

Justices are allowed to select art pieces from the Smithsonian Institute for their chambers. Most go with portraits of dead presidents or former justices, but not Ginsburg. She prefers more modern art, like Josef Albers’ “Homage to the Square.”

Last but not least, she loves wearing gloves and loves embracing Obama.

 

ANTONIN SCALIA

Antonin Scalia has 9 kids (one is a priest) and over two dozen grandchildren.

Despite their vastly different ideologies, Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg are close friends. Their families have spent many New Year’s Eves together and there’s also evidence that they rode an elephant together in India.

He is statistically the funniest justice, eliciting 77 laughs in one term, as compared to Justice Breyer’s 45, Justice Ginsburg’s 4 and Justice Thomas’ 0.

Scalia is said to read all his briefs on his iPad.

A lover of opera, he appeared as an extra in a 1994 production of Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, alongside Justice Ginsburg. One of the cast members sat in his lap and, afterward, Scalia said: “I thoroughly enjoyed it.”

ELENA KAGAN

As if she already knew her destiny, Kagan decided to pose for her high school yearbook wearing a judge’s robes and holding a gavel. The quote below her photograph was from Justice Felix Frankfurter.

She is a self-confessed book worm “who reread Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice every year.”

Before her tenure on the Court, she was known to smoke cigars and play poker.

Kagan clerked for civil rights icon Thurgood Marshall in 1987. He called her “Shorty.”

Kagan was the first woman to become the dean of Harvard Law School. While there, she led a campaign to block military recruiters from the Harvard campus, due to the discriminatory nature of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and led a separate push to allow free morning coffee for students.

Bill Clinton nominated her to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, but Senate Republicans blocked her nomination. The spot later went to her current colleague Chief Justice John Roberts.

CLARENCE THOMAS

During oral arguments, there is a lot of interrupting by the justices; everyone battles to ask their questions and dominate the conversation. Except for Thomas, who rarely speaks. Just this year, he broke a nearly 7 year silence.

Thomas studied at Yale Law School, but you wouldn’t know that from the “Yale Sucks” bumper sticker displayed in his office. He has blamed the school’s affirmative action policy for his difficulty landing a job post graduation and has said that his law degree from the school was “worth 15 cents.”

Despite his grumpy reputation and his reticence, Thomas is the most liked justice within the Supreme Court. He is said to know the names of everyone who works there, from the janitors to the cafeteria workers.

Clerks consider him the most accessible of the justices and strike up personal connections with him. For a time, Thomas bonded with a lesbian clerk of Justice Stevens so much so that he kept a picture of her snowboarder partner on his desk.

Thomas also has a sense of humor about himself, evidenced by the time he accepted an award on the behalf of a columnist who wrote the following about him: “I hope his wife feeds him lots of eggs and butter and he dies early like many black men do, of heart disease.” His response: “My doctor makes it clear that my blood pressure is fine, my cholesterol is normal, and I am in wonderful health.”

Thomas loves to drive his RV around the country and has said that he parks overnight in Wal-Mart parking lots.

SONIA SOTOMAYOR

Sotomayor was born to a Puerto Rican family and was brought up in a public housing project in the Bronx.

Sotomayor’s father, a factory worker who didn’t speak English, died when she was 9. Her mother, who had served in the Women’s Auxiliary Corps during World War II, worked six day a week as a nurse to provide for her two children.

Sotomayor found out she had Type 1 diabetes at the age of 8. She has been injecting herself four times a day since then.

To mark her 50th birthday, she learned how to salsa dance.

Sonia Sotomayor’s first day as a justice (and the first Latina on the Court) coincided with Justice Kagan’s first day as Solicitor General a.k.a. the “tenth justice” (and the first woman to hold that position).

 

SAMUEL ALITO

While most kids are lazy and looking for direction in high school, Alito was busy being active in 10 clubs, including band, track, and the debate team. He was also the class valedictorian.

Following his graduation from Yale Law School, he served on active duty in the Army for three months in 1975. He was a Captain when he received an honorable discharge in 1980.

During one of President Obama’s State of the Union addresses, Alito stirred up some controversy when he mouthed  “Not true,” after the President criticized a recent decision by the Court.

He has developed the nickname “Scalita,” due to his similarities with Justice Scalia in ideology and Italian heritage.

Alito is known for his love of baseball, specifically the Philadelphia Phillies. At a welcome dinner for Alito soon after his introduction to the Court, Justice Breyer gave an awkward speech about how everyone was being nice now, but they would turn on him eventually, which is why he needed a true friend. That’s when the Phillie Phanatic, the mascot of Alito’s beloved team, burst in and went in for a long embrace.

 

ANTHONY KENNEDY

Kennedy grew up in Sacramento and still lived in his childhood home that his father built when he was appointed to the Court by Reagan in 1988.

He was not Reagan’s first choice…or second. The first, Robert Bork, was deemed too extreme by the Senate and the second, Douglas Ginsburg, withdrew his nomination after controversy erupted surrounding his previous marijuana use.

After Sandra Day O’Connor’s exit from the Court in 2006, Kennedy has become the “swing vote,” often siding with the conservatives, but joining the liberals on some issues such as gay rights.

Kennedy is a man consumed by wanderlust. He has worked in China, Canada, England, and Salzburg, Austria, where he spends his summers. He has also come under fire from his conservative colleagues for using foreign law as a guidepost for some of his decisions.

During a summer break from college, Kennedy drove around Europe in a red VW. His father gifted him a bottle of whiskey for the trip. Kennedy only used it to gargle away a sore throat.

JOHN ROBERTS JR.

At his Catholic high school in Indiana, Roberts made an impression. In addition to being the valedictorian, he was also the captain of the football team, a varsity wrestler, part of the choir, the student council and the drama club.

He played the role of Peppermint Patty in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown (the school was all boys).

Roberts worked at a steel mill to save up money for college.

On his first day working as a White House Counsel for Reagan, Roberts received a call from someone saying the President was about to get on the line. Roberts waited with anticipation for 15 to 20 minutes before realizing it was a prank orchestrated by his new colleagues, who all placed a bet on just how long he would wait.

Roberts reportedly met his wife on a blind date. They have adopted two children, a boy and a girl born within six months of each other.

 

STEPHEN BREYER

Stephen Breyer was born in San Francisco and attended Lowell High School in the city. It is the only alma mater he mentions in speeches. “That doesn’t mean a lot to you, but it means a lot to me,” he has said.

He was a member of the Lowell Forensic Society and participated in many high school debate tournaments, including against current California Governor Jerry Brown.

Breyer was voted Most Likely to Succeed.

He speaks fluent French.

In 1967, he married Joanna Freda Hare, a psychologist and member of the British aristocracy.

While on a bike ride in 1993, Breyer was struck by a car, which resulted in broken ribs and a punctured lung. Despite his injuries, he left the hospital to meet with Bill Clinton, who was considering him for the Supreme Court. Ruth Bader Ginsburg beat him out for the spot, but Breyer got his the following year.

 

And there you have it: a little more understanding about these mysterious all-powerful judicial figures. When you peel back the politics, they’re just like us.

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Emmanuel Hapsis received his MFA in creative writing from California College of the Arts. When he's not editing or writing for KQED Pop, he spends his time wondering if he should start a commune and petting all the stray cats.

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