Justice Ginsburg errs, wonderfully

July 8, 2009

David Bernstein writing at the Volokh Conspiracy corrects Justice Ginsburgh.  She told a reporter for the New York Times that she thought nominee Sonia Sotomayor might be, when confirmed, the first justice who didn’t speak English as a first language at home.

Not so fast, Bernstein said.  In a wonderful and fun display of historical knowledge and research, suggests several justices from earlier appointments who spoke something other than English first.

  • Justice Louis Brandeis, German –
    “I’m not sure what language was primarily spoken in the Brandeis household, but I would guess German, based on the following information: Brandeis’s parents were German-speaking immigrants; Brandeis attended a German-language elementary school, the ‘German and English Academy;’ the school was co-founded by his father, suggesting that his father had great fondness for the German language and culture; and Brandeis spent two of his teenage years studying in Germany.”
  • Maybe Justice Arthur Goldberg, Yiddish –
    “It’s also possible that Arthur Goldberg’s parents, immigrants from a shtetl in Ukraine, spoke Yiddish at home.”
  • Justice Felix Frankfurter almost definitely, German –
    ” . . . a commenter points out that Felix Frankfurter’s family didn’t arrive in the U.S. from Vienna until Frankfurter was twelve years old.”
  • Justice Clarence Thomas, Gullah –
    ” . . . I remembered that Justice Thomas’s first language is Gullah, an Afro-English creole dialect”

Thomas spoke Gullah originally?  When we shared a wall on Senate staff (he on John Danforth’s staff, I on Orrin Hatch’s), we also shared lunch on a few occasions, and meetings on energy and environment issues.  I was struck by his great enunciation, the clear way that he used his nearly baritone voice to make English work.  I wonder whether he can still command Gullah — it’s got to be one of the most minority languages on Earth right now.  Fascinating.

Are there other Supreme Court justices who may have spoken a language other than English, first?  Historians?  Got candidates? Justice Warren Burger’s family was of German descent, and in Minnesota, when he was born, it would not have been uncommon for an entire town to have German as its primary language.  I haven’t found anything to suggest that’s the case, though. Justice William J. Brennan’s parents were Irish immigrants, so there is an outside chance they spoke some Gaelic dialect.

I wouldn’t be surprised if we could find another justice who served between 1840 and 1960 with German as a first language.

How about Cardozo, and a Sephardic dialect, or Portuguese?  Any justices of French descent?  Welsh descent?  Readers, help out!


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