It’s a New York state of mind for some Supreme Court justices

December 11, 2013

How would the Supreme Court play in Peoria? And would some of the justices need a map to find it?

The good people of the city of 115,000 in central Illinois — remember that, for later — might be a bit puzzled as to how they ended up in the middle of the court’s consideration Wednesday of the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor started it all, and those who criticize the justices as too similar in geographic background and too East Coast-centric might find fodder in the oral arguments in Lozano v. Alvarez. It concerned the treaty’s mandates about a parent who abducts a child and conceals the whereabouts from the other parent.

“My gosh, all it takes is moving to Peoria?” Sotomayor said, seeming to pluck the city out of the air. She paused as she considered whether that came out wrong.

“I mean, I don’t mean to denigrate Peoria, but all it takes is moving to a place that has no connection to . . .

Justice Antonin Scalia cut in before she could finish to enlighten the lawyer at the podium.

“Justice Sotomayor is from New York,” said Scalia, who was raised in Queens.

“Yes, obviously,” said Sotomayor, who grew up in the Bronx. “Obviously.”

There was laughter in the courtroom, and then Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. broke in.

“Those of us from the Midwest think it’s actually easier to hide a child in New York,” said Roberts, who spent most of his childhood in Indiana.

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Brooklyn) and Elena Kagan (Upper West Side of Manhattan) held their peace.

That might have been the end of it, except for Justice Stephen G. Breyer.

Breyer grew up in San Francisco and came to the Supreme Court via the appeals court in Boston. In fact, all but one of the former judges now on the court served on one of the “Acela circuits”: Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington.

Breyer picked up Sotomayor’s hypothetical — and perhaps made matters worse.

In his embellished version, the mother and child “live in a grain elevator, a nicely refurbished grain elevator, in Peoria for a year.”

After that time, he speculated, a family judge might find that “the child is settled here now in Iowa.”

Members of the courtroom audience looked at one another, and Roberts seemed to shoot Breyer a warning glance. It was not received.

Later, Breyer hypothesized about the father finding the child “in Iowa” and a judge making a custody decision “under Iowa law.”

The actual case before the court involves a Colombian couple who met in London. The mother took her child from the United Kingdom and settled in the United States.

In New York.

Robert Barnes has been a Washington Post reporter and editor since 1987. He has covered the Supreme Court since November 2006.
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