Only the most obtuse or biased Americans could fail to be moved by the nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court (see page 28). Whether or not she is confirmed, this is a giant leap, as Neil Armstrong said when he set foot on the moon, for mankind – or womankind, in this case. What the heck – for us all. A member of not one but two minority groups, she grew up poor and achieved much, and there are many lessons in the story of her life.
Jews across America were thrilled when Jews were named to the nation’s highest court, especially the first, Louis Brandeis, in 1916. He was a champion of the right to privacy (the title of an essay he co-authored), a foe of big business and big government, and a committed Zionist, and his nomination was opposed by many who considered him “unfit” – a code word for Jewish, do you think? He became one of the court’s most celebrated justices.
Benjamin Cardozo, named to the bench in 1932, had a reputation for being highly principled as well as being a great legal mind. An anecdote found at Jewishvirtual library.org is telling: “Cardozo tried never to let his personal identification influence his judicial reasoning. For example, although an avowed personal opponent of Hitler’s regime, he was distressed when, in 1935, New York City magistrate Louis Brodsky dismissed assault charges against five of six Jewish defendants who stormed the German ship Bremen in New York harbor as it flew the Nazi flag. Brodsky wrote in his opinion that the lawbreakers were justified because the flag provoked them, even though the U.S. government recognized Germany’s National Socialist regime. Cardozo wrote to a family member of Brodsky’s decision: ‘What is the use of striving for standards of judicial propriety if [one] condone[s] such lapses! It would have been bad enough if [Brodsky] had been a Gentile; but for a Jew it was unforgivable. Now our traducers will say – and with some right… – that these are the standards of the race.'”
He was followed by Felix Frankfurter in 1939; Arthur Goldberg in 1962; Abe Fortas in 1965; Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 1993; and Stephen Breyer in 1994. All learned, some even brilliant, all committed to the rule of American law, even if they may have had differing opinions about it.