Sotomayor, Scalia Share N.Y. Roots, Not Ideology

"She'd be every bit as smart"

It's a great New York story and it could evolve into a greater, even more fascinating tale. There may soon be two Supreme Court justices with strong ties to New York, but widely differing views on the issues that may come before them.   
The appointment by President Barack Obama of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court has to make New Yorkers proud. She grew up in the Bronx and, if a Senate committee approves her, will be joining another former New Yorker on the bench, Antonin Scalia. Justice Scalia started his education in Elmhurst, and then attended Xavier, a Catholic high school in Manhattan. Judge Sotomayor attended Cardinal Spellman High School in the Bronx.

Whether or not their strong Catholic education is partially responsible, it's clear that both have strong, disciplined minds. And they are ready to do battle for principles that have guided them in their legal and judicial careers.
When President Obama introduced her at the White House, Sonia Sotomayor, who could become the first Hispanic to sit on the court, referred to herself as "a kid from the Bronx.” She grew up in a Bronx housing project, the child of parents who moved to the city from Puerto Rico. Her father died when she was very young and her mother had to work two jobs to put her daughter and son through professional schools.
Scalia's father was a professor of Romance languages and emigrated to the U.S. from Sicily. President Reagan appointed Scalia to the Supreme Court in 1986 after he spent years in private practice and government service. Scalia was the first Italian-American to sit on the Supreme Court and has won a reputation as the court's core conservative.
Sotomayor came out of the projects, growing up in the Bronxdale Houses. The President praised her for “a common touch and a sense of compassion.” The judge won national fame when she ruled against the baseball owners and in favor of the ball players in 1995, ending a long strike. As a judge on the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, she earned a reputation for asking tough, probing questions and delivering carefully thought out decisions.
In this respect she is similar to Scalia, whose style is to ask crisp, often witty questions and to stir public controversy. He is known for using humor, a relaxed style in dealing with his fellow justices and in questioning attorneys. One lawyer compared Scalia's lively style to "a big cat batting around a ball of yarn."
Scalia is a fierce opponent of the doctrine of a "living Constitution" which holds that the judiciary has the power to modify the meaning of constitutional provisions to adapt to “the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.” He believes that amending the Constitution is in line with democratic principles, as opposed to changing the Constitution by judges ruling from above. He believes in relying on history and tradition to determine the meaning of the Constitution.
Early in her career, Sotomayor worked as an assistant district attorney for Manhattan Prosecutor Robert Morgenthau. Happy about the appointment, he disputes the notion that she will follow a moderate or liberal line on the court.
"She'll be right down the middle,” Morgenthau told me.

Morgenthau praised her for her determined pursuit of a murderer known as the Tarzan Robber, who stalked his victims from fire escapes. He got 75 years to life. As for how she would stack up against Scalia if they became antagonists, the District Attorney said: “She'd be every bit as smart.”
The Manhattan prosecutor, normally reserved, almost staid, was uncharacteristically enthusiastic about his former aide.

“It's a great appointment,” he said. “It's a great day for the United States.”
A judge who knows Sotomayor well but wanted to remain anonymous said: “She's a thoughtful person but she knows her first duty as a judge is to be fair.”

The judge took issue with the idea that Sotomayor is a trailblazer, a standard bearer for Hispanic progress.

“'She can only be a standard bearer for justice,” the judge said.

As for Scalia and Sotomayor, “I think they will be adversaries but they will respect each other. They have common roots in their Catholic education here in New York. Both his school {Xavier] and hers [Cardinal Spellman] foster critical thinking. If they clash, she'll be able to hold her own.”
One thing's for sure, New York will be watching.

Contact Us