With the swirl of barbs and recriminations over Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s U.S. Supreme Court nomination centering on race, little attention is being paid to what is a glaring lack of representation on the high court: Rural America.
If Sotomayor is confirmed, she will break a barrier as the first Latino to be seated on the Supreme Court. But as she joins the court and Justice David Souter, who grew up in Weare, N.H., leaves, the Court’s collection of nine biographies will be decidedly urban, Eastern and heavy on Ivy League education.
Of the nine justices, only Clarence Thomas can lay claim to any real rural ties. He was born in Pin Point, Ga., a rural community founded by free slaves. But Thomas lived there for only six years (albeit without indoor plumbing) before his house burned and a grandfather took him to the nearby city of Savannah. Thomas’s wife is from Omaha, Neb., and as the Omaha World-Herald pointed out this weekend, he does know University of Nebraska Husker football.
Four of the justices, if one counts Sotomayor, hail from the New York City area. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is from Brooklyn, and Sotomayor was born in the Bronx. Trenton, N.J., just one American city, has more representation than all of rural America. Both Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito were born there.
“A couple weeks ago before Obama picked Sotomayor for this I said I hope we get someone who went to night law school,” said U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who is expected to vote for the confirmation of Sotomayor.
Harkin noted that Souter brought strong rural credentials to the court. “You can’t get much more rural than Judge Souter living out in the small community up in rural New Hampshire but we’ve lost that,” Harkin said. “I hope the next time something comes up we get someone that maybe didn’t go to Harvard, didn’t go to Yale, maybe went to a small, Midwestern law school someplace.”
Obama owes his presidency in large part to rural America as his political fortunes turned dramatically when he defeated Hillary Clinton in the Iowa caucuses.
Drake University law professor Mark Kende said his immediate reaction to the question about rural representation on the court is that its absence is not likely to have a big effect on the Midwest.
“But it’s never a bad thing to have a diverse court either,” Kende said. “I don’t know if rural America should be upset. I wish fewer people would get upset about such questions generally and focus on whether the nominee has good academic credentials and experience — judicial, practice, prosecutor. I think this nominee meets those criteria.”
Kende, who is the James Madison chair in constitutional law at Drake, said Chief Justice John Roberts, Jr., grew up in Indiana. “Roberts is from Indiana so I’m sure he has lots of ‘rural’ contacts,” Kende said.
Roberts was born in Buffalo, N.Y., but grew up in Long Beach, Ind., just outside of Chicago along Lake Michigan. It is not a place most people from rural America would consider as such.
The only justice born in the Midwest is John Paul Stevens, who is from Chicago. Justices Anthony Kennedy and Stephen Breyer were born in California.