Vail Daily column: Singing with the Supremes
March 21, 2017
In college, I rowed varsity crew. I rowed "seat one," the farthest from the Coxswain and the Stroke; the first to cross the finish line. Estes and Jacobson were the stars. Although I was not the star, I learned a thing or two. One was that when a racing shell is not at full strength — say, pulling through the water with seven rowers rather than the customary eight — the boat tends to round to port or starboard rather than flashing a crisp 2,000 meters in a straight line.
That's where the United States Supreme Court finds itself today.
Since the death of the legendary literary wit, Antonin Scalia, in February 2016, although the Court has been muddling along, it has not been at full, crisp strength.
All of that is about to change.
With the near-inevitability that Colorado's own, Neil Gorsuch, will soon be confirmed as the 113th person to serve on the august body of the United States Supreme Court, the bench will soon be at full strength. For those bean counters among you, if confirmed, Gorsuch will be only the second Coloradoan to serve on the bench, the first being Byron "Whizzer" White, the All-American halfback for the Colorado Buffs, fourth overall draft pick in the 1938 NFL draft and Rhodes Scholar. No slacker, he.
Nineteen states have never been represented among the Supremes, which tends to be weighted with East Coasters. There have been 15 Supreme Court Justices from New York, nine from Massachusetts, eight from Virginia, six from Pennsylvania and five each from Maryland and New Jersey.
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A handful of justices were born outside of the United States, mostly from among the earliest justices on the Court. These included James Wilson, born in Fife, Scotland; James Iredell, born in Lewes, England; and William Paterson, born in County Antrim, Ireland. Justice David Josiah Brewer was born farthest from the U.S., in Smyrna, in the Ottoman Empire, (now Izmir, Turkey). George Sutherland was born in Buckinghamshire, England. The last foreign-born Justice, and the only one of these for whom English was a second language, was Felix Frankfurter, born in Vienna, Austria. The Constitution imposes no citizenship requirement on federal judges.
Ascending the bench
With the death of Justice Scalia, the stonewalling of President Obama's nominee, Merrick Garland, the still-fresh carnage of the presidential election, and The Donald's pick of Judge Gorsuch as the next anointed, the Supremes have come once more into laser focus. Simply, who are they, what do they do and how in God's good name does one become one?
Nine in number, the United States Supreme Court is comprised of a Chief Justice (currently Justice Roberts, appointed by President George W. Bush in 2005) and eight associate justices. The seven currently serving (an as-yet-unfilled-hole was left by Justice Scalia's untimely death) are, in order of seniority: Anthony M. Kennedy (1988), Clarence Thomas (1991), Ruth Bader Ginsberg (1993), Stephen Breyer (1994), Samuel Alito (2006), Sonia Sotomayor (2009), and Elena Kagan (2010).
The first African American appointed to the Court was Thurgood Marshall, appointed by Lyndon B. Johnson in 1967. The second was current Justice Thomas, appointed by George H. W. Bush to succeed Marshall in 1991. Current Justice Sotomayor — nominated by President Barack Obama on May 26, 2009, and sworn in on August 8 of that year — is the first Supreme Court Justice of Latin American descent. There have been four female Supreme Court Justices, three of whom are currently serving on the bench.
All but a handful of Supreme Court justices have been married. Frank Murphy, Benjamin Cardozo and James McReynolds were lifelong bachelors. David Souter and current justice Elena Kagan have never been married. William O. Douglas — the longest-serving Supreme Court Justice in history (at 44 years) — was the first sitting justice to divorce and also had the most marriages at — gulp! — four. Justice Sotomayor, through previously married and divorced, was the first unmarried woman to be appointed to the Court.
Several justices have become widowers while on the bench; Justice John Rutledge in 1792, Roger B. Taney, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. and William Rehnquist. With the death of Martin Ginsburg in June 2010, Ruth Bader Ginsburg became the first woman to be widowed while serving on the Court.
No Supreme Court justice has identified himself or herself as openly gay or has identified him or herself as anything other than heterosexual.
Justices of faith
Of the current eight justices serving on the Court, all are either Roman Catholic or Jewish. Gorsuch, a fourth-generation Coloradan, was raised a Roman Catholic. There has never been a member of the Court who was Mormon, Pentecostal, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh or an avowed atheist.
Unlike the offices of president, U.S. Representative, and U.S. Senator, there is no minimum age for Supreme Court justices set forth in the United States Constitution. However, justices tend to be appointed after having made significant achievements in law or politics, which excludes many young potential candidates from consideration. At the same time, justices appointed at too advanced an age will likely have short tenures on the Court and one of the lures of presidential appointment is the life tenure of a Supreme Court justice. There are no term limits. Generally, justices step down only when they determine they are ready.
In the next part, a little more of the interesting history and demographics of the Court. And then the "how you get to be one" and "what do they do" parts of the story.
Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the bars of Colorado and California who practices in the Vail Valley with the law firm of Stevens, Littman, Biddision, Tharp and Weinberg LLC. His practice areas include business and commercial transactions, real estate and development, family law, custody, divorce and civil litigation. Robbins may be reached at 970-926-4461 or at either of his email addresses, email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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