Courting Kathleen

Posted by Patricia Harty at 5/15/2009 4:13 PM EDT

Could an Irish-American Stanford University law professor be the next Supreme Court Justice?

When Kathleen Sullivan, Stanford University law professor, and former dean, was asked in a 2000 interview with Elgie Gillespie for Irish America magazine, about the possibility of following in Sandra Day O'Connor and William Brennan's footsteps, she said:

“Who knows? It's politics.”

“I admired Brennan so and it always annoyed me when he was praised for stereotypical 'Irish' qualities instead of for just being as smart as a whip!”

Now, Sullivan, a third-generation Irish-American with Cork and Limerick roots, is one of 12 possible Supreme Court nominees who could be nominated by President Barack Obama with the retirement of Justice David Souter.

Sullivan, grew up in Queens, New York, her mother was a teacher, her father an accountant, both of whom graduated from city college public education. They espoused, the “usual emigrant values of hard work and emotional astringency, but were as focused and articulate as can be,” she said.

As a teenager, she studied literature but as she watched Watergate unfold, she became fascinated by the due process of the special prosecutors and signed up for Harvard Law School, where she landed in Professor Lawrence Tribe's constitutional law class.

Sullivan graduated cum-summa laude and became part of Tribe's Supreme Court practice in 1981. In 1984, at 29, she became part of his Harvard law faculty, and was deemed “talented and energetic enough to rise to the pinnacle of anything she does,” in Tribe's own words:

“She is dazzlingly good, brilliantly quick at seeing connections and noticing the subtext of a question. She's also witty.”

After a stellar career at Harvard, where Sullivan was a popular law professor, she was recruited by Stanford Law School and joined the faculty in 1993. In 1999 she became the dean of Stanford Law School, the first woman dean of any school at Stanford.

She was also responsible for inviting Irish President Mary McAleese and former President Mary Robinson – both lawyers – to Stanford within weeks of each other.

Being Irish, she said, gave her “a little bit of a perspective of the outsider . . . . of how easy it is to be a subordinated group.”

She pointed out that “when Sandra Day O'Connor graduated from Stanford Law School and had difficulty getting a job even though she had finished top of her class.”

When asked by Irish America about the influence of Catholicism in her education, Sullivan, who if selected, would be the first openly gay or lesbian Supreme Court nominee, said, “Oh, a lot.

“Not that I agree with everything or toe the line -- women priests, for instance, have got to come soon!

“But first, I attribute a sense of 'the Rules' to it, meaning the Baltimore Catechism. There's a sense of social responsibility towards the poorer and weaker members of society. Finally, there's the urge to do pro bono work.”



“Despite their image lawyers do more public good than anyone would ever have you believe,” Sullivan says.



Should Sullivan become the next Supreme Court Justice, it would be an extraordinary achievement for the bright Catholic schoolgirl from Queens, but she won't let it got to her head. She told the Los Angeles Times:



“My Irish grandmother used to say, 'don't let your head get swelled up now.'”

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