Supreme Court geography

Our country’s checks and balances are based primarily on the independence of the three branches of government: executive (President), legislative (Congress) and judicial (Supreme Court). The separation of federal and state government is another way, but that’s not my focus. I got to wondering how representative the U.S. Supreme Court is of the country as a whole. The responsibility of interpreting the U.S. Constitution and statues involves value judgments: how much process is “due”; what legislation is “appropriate?” These and many other words in the Constitution are very subjective.

Of course the judicial branch is not supposed to be subject to the vagaries and political pressures of the election process, but it is still arguable that the entire country’s legal system ought not to be ruled by an elite few with a restricted, insular view of such values. Therefore I researched where every Supreme Court justice grew up and where they received their legal education. I limited my review to those who served within the last 100 years, after the “lower 48” were all states. Consider these maps:

The numbers show how many justices grew up or were educated in those states. There were a total of 56 researched. Some justices moved throughout their youth, but I did my best to identify the state for which they would considered a “native son” or “native daughter,” usually where they lived during middle and high school years which I consider formative. The second map generally shows where they attended law school, but many justices in the earliest part of the range never graduated from law school and may not ever have attended law school. “Reading the law” with a law firm or judge and then taking the bar was a common method of obtaining a legal education up until the 1960s or so. The maps do not necessarily reflect where the justices practiced law, which did include some states not shown as represented (such as Wyoming).

The northeast is heavily represented, some may say over-represented, especially in the second map. Almost all of the those educated in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, or New Jersey¬† were from Ivy League law schools (Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and Princeton respectively). The Midwest gets some fairly decent representation at least on the top map, but the Deep South and West seem to be short-changed. Some very populous states, such as Florida and North Carolina, have not had a justice appointed in the last 100 years, and Texas has had only one. This trend toward the Ivy League has gotten stronger in recent years, which seems surprising considering the push for diversity in other parts of government. The last justice to serve who didn’t attend an Ivy League law school was Sandra Day O’Connor (appointed in 1981). Kentucky surprised me, but it was probably an important swing state between the north and south in the early 20th century and I suspect politics played a part in those appointments. The most recent Kentuckyan to serve was Chief Justice Fred Vinson (1937 – 1943). Many of the justices were politicians before their appointments and quite a few came from very modest circumstances, although most were from relatively prosperous, well-educated families.

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