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The Supreme Court: An immigration back story

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By Terry Baynes

April 24 (Reuters) – As American as … the U.S. Supreme Court? Like their countrymen, most of the nine justices of the Supreme Court are the descendants of people who came to United States in search of a better life. (The notable exception is Justice Clarence Thomas, whose great-grandmother was a slave.) The jurists’ immigrant ancestors hailed from Czechoslovakia, Britain, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Poland, Puerto Rico, Romania and Russia. While their ancestral back stories don’t necessarily shed light on the justices’ views of illegal immigration, or whether they will uphold Arizona’s tough immigration law, the members’ roots are clearly a point of pride, and many highlighted their families’ tales at their nomination hearings.

Here, the immigration stories of the current nine, in order of appointment:

Justice Antonin Scalia (1986)

Scalia is one of two justices who hail from the land of Dante, Cicero and pasta alla carbonara. Scalia’s father,
Salvatore Scalia, was 17 when he arrived in the United States from Sicily in 1920 with his parents and sister. The elder Scalias were uneducated, but Salvatore earned several degrees and eventually taught Romance languages at Brooklyn College. Justice Scalia’s mother, Catherine Panaro, was a first-generation Italian-American whose parents immigrated to New York city around 1900 and who later moved to Trenton, New Jersey, where her father sold men’s suits and became a leader of L’Ordine Figli d’Italia, the Order Sons of Italy, an Italian-American cultural group.

Justice Anthony Kennedy (1988)

Kennedy’s family genealogy is equal parts Horatio Alger and Edith Wharton. His paternal grandparents immigrated from Ireland in the late 1800s and settled in California. Kennedy’s father, Anthony J. Kennedy, started as a dock worker in San Francisco, put himself through college and law school and eventually became a lawyer and lobbyist. Kennedy’s maternal roots are a little more establishment. His mother, Gladys McLeod, was born in the United States; her maternal grandparents went from Germany to California in the late 1800s, while her paternal grandmother emigrated from Ireland; her paternal grandfather was born in Massachusetts, a descendant of early immigrants from the British Isles.

Justice Clarence Thomas (1991)

The second African-American to serve on the high court, Thomas, like associate justice Thurgood Marshall (1967-1991), is a descendant of slaves. “Much of my family tree is lost to me, its secrets having gone to the grave with my grandparents,” Thomas wrote in his 2007 memoir. For generations, Thomas’ ancestors lived on the barrier islands and in parts of Georgia, South Carolina and northern Florida. Known as Geechees in Georgia and Gullahs in South Carolina, the isolated population kept its distinct dialect and culture into the 20th Century. Thomas and his brother were raised by his maternal grandfather, Myers Anderson, whose ancestors had worked a 3,000-acre rice plantation near Savannah.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (1993)

One of two court members of Russian-Jewish heritage, Ginsburg described herself at her nomination hearings as “a first generation American on my father’s side, barely second generation on my mother’s.” She also credited her grandparents
for having “the foresight to leave the old country, where Jewish ancestry and faith meant exposure to pogroms and denigration of one’s human worth.” Ginsburg’s father, Nathan Bader, emigrated from Russia when he was 13, worked as a fur dealer and in a men’s clothing store. Her maternal grandparents emigrated from a small town near Cracow, Poland, four months before Ginsburg’s mother was born. Ginsburg grew up in Flatbush, a Brooklyn neighborhood known for Jewish, Italian and Irish immigrants.

Justice Stephen Breyer (1994)

Breyer has the distinction of being the only justice married to a member of the British aristocracy, Joanna Hare, daughter of the British politician John Hare, 1st Viscount Blakenham. His own roots are more-typically American. Breyer’s paternal grandfather was born in Ohio to Romanian immigrants who arrived in the United States in the late 1800s; his paternal grandmother was born in California to 19th Century German immigrants. The justice, who is Jewish, grew up in San Francisco, where his father worked as a lawyer for the public school system and his mother was active in Democratic politics. During his nomination hearings, Breyer thanked his parents and paid tribute to his mother’s father “who came in 1900 to Ellis Island — he was a cobbler from Poland. I mean, he wouldn’t have believed today.”

Justice John Roberts (2005)

Roberts’ family tree dips into corners of Britain, Czechoslovakia and Germany, but because he is married to Jane Sullivan Roberts, the daughter of Irish Catholic immigrants, he is often thought of as having Irish roots. Roberts was born in Buffalo, New York, in 1955 and raised in Indiana. His father was a plant manager for Bethlehem Steel, whose paternal ancestors moved from England to Pennsylvania in the 1800s. Members of his father’s mother’s family went from Germany to Pennsylvania in the 1700s. Roberts’s own mother was the granddaughter of Czech immigrants who arrived in Pennsylvania in the late 1800s. The Robertses have a home in Limerick, Ireland, and their two adopted children were born in Ireland. Roberts has been named to the Irish Legal 100 through his wife’s heritage.

Justice Samuel Alito (2006)

Like the bench’s other Italo-American, Antonin Scalia, Alito is first-generation on one side. His father was brought to the United States from Italy as an infant, grew up poor and eventually landed a long-term staff job in the New Jersey legislature. Alito’s mother was a first generation American whose immigrant parents arrived in the United States from Italy in 1904, then settled in Trenton, New Jersey. During his confirmation hearings, Alito mentioned his immigrant roots in response to criticism that he tended to rule against poor and minority litigants as a judge. When looking at immigration cases, “I have to say to myself… ‘You know, this could be your grandfather, this could be your grandmother. They were not citizens at one time, and they were people who came to this country,'” he said.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor (2009)

Sotomayor prompted a minor cultural kerfuffle when materials she submitted to the Senate for her confirmation hearing
included speeches where she referred to herself as “a wise Latina woman.” Sotomayor’s Hispanic heritage is a big part of her biography. Both of her parents migrated to the United States from Puerto Rico during World War Two. Her mother moved to Georgia for a job with the Women’s Army Corps, which was recruiting Puerto Rican women to serve in non-combat roles at the time. She later transferred with the military to New York city, where she married Sotomayor’s father, a tool-and-die shop worker who died from a heart condition when Sotomayor was young. Sotomayor paid an emotional tribute to her mother at her nomination.

Justice Elena Kagan (2010)

If Kennedy’s family tree nods to Edith Wharton, Kagan’s is Henry Roth, chronicler of the lives of Depression-era Jewish immigrants. Three of Kagan’s four grandparents were Russian Jews who came to the United States in the 1900s. The fourth — her father’s mother — was born in New York to Russian immigrants who arrived in the late 1800s. “My parents lived the American dream. They grew up in immigrant communities. My mother didn’t speak a word of English until she went to school, but she became a legendary teacher and my father a valued lawyer. And they taught me and my two brothers, both high school teachers, that this is the greatest of all countries because of the freedoms and opportunities it offers its people,” she said at her confirmation hearings.

(Reporting by Terry Baynes; Editing by Eileen Daspin and Amy Stevens)

Copyright © 2012, Reuters



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