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April 15, 2010 8:01 PM   Subscribe

Now that Stevens, a Northwestern Law grad, is retiring, all eight remaining Supreme Court justices hail from either Harvard or Yale law school. Is it time for some educational diversity on the court? Many think the court needs to expand its educational horizons. Complaints aren’t limited to the Justices themselves. Both Congress and Justice Thomas are concerned with a lack of different educational backgrounds among the clerks.
posted by HabeasCorpus (42 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

 
Sort of related, from December: Has the Supreme Court Become Too Catholic?
posted by cmgonzalez at 8:17 PM on April 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


I shall retire from regular active service as an Associate Justice, under the provisions of 28 U.S.C. 371 (b), effective the next day after the Court rises for the summer recess this year.”

Lawerly overspecificity to the end, eh? I'd like to think that Stevens is reserving a right to extraordinary emergency service as an Associate Justice, and to that end will slumber under a mountain until the hour of his country's greatest need.
posted by Iridic at 8:18 PM on April 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


Does anyone else find it interesting that people are saying that all the justices come from Harvard/Yale and are Catholic?
posted by ifandonlyif at 8:22 PM on April 15, 2010


will slumber under a mountain until the hour of his country's greatest need

For some reason, the picture that came to my mind was of row upon row of former Supreme Court justices being stored with the nuclear waste under Yucca Mountain.
posted by AdamCSnider at 8:23 PM on April 15, 2010


I know Scalia already has his own crypt down there, outfitted and well stocked with Montepulciano.
posted by darkstar at 8:29 PM on April 15, 2010


The Court needs people who didn't go directly from college to law school. I reckon that matters more than where they went to school. With the possible exception of Chicago.
posted by Father Tiresias at 8:29 PM on April 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


What Are Liberal Law Students So Sad About? They have no one to look up to.
posted by homunculus at 8:30 PM on April 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


It does make me sad, homunculus. And thinking about Epstein on the court makes me shudder.
posted by HabeasCorpus at 8:38 PM on April 15, 2010


The Court needs people who didn't go directly from college to law school. I reckon that matters more than where they went to school.

this x 10,000. Seriously.

and I say this as an ivy grad. i didn't learn a damn thing about anything until after I graduated and entered the cold reality of life. It sounds cliche, and it is, but fuck me if it isn't the truth.
posted by Lutoslawski at 8:44 PM on April 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


For some reason, the picture that came to my mind was of row upon row of former Supreme Court justices being stored with the nuclear waste under Yucca Mountain.

you do NOT want to be in the way when the Radioactive Warren Court, awakened by our foolish flirtation with originalist backsliding, rises up and rampages through the United States Military over Don't Ask Don't Tell.

"it was horrible... they were everywhere at once, 50 feet tall and expansively interpreting individual rights faster than we could reload... I saw Marshall rip the turret off an Abrams and throw it into helicopter, bellowing something about Evolving Standards of Decency. Brennan wiped out an entire battalion of JAGs with a single implied fundamental right... and the Commerce Clause... OH GOD... THE COMMERCE CLAUSE"
posted by ScotchRox at 8:44 PM on April 15, 2010 [11 favorites]


oh, and Father Tiresias, welcome to Metafilter.
posted by Lutoslawski at 8:44 PM on April 15, 2010


Oh yeah if Bush had had his way there'd be some diversity on the Supreme Court you betcha. Southern Methodist University.

Just to show that there are worse things than being an Ivy League graduate. shudders
posted by JHarris at 8:55 PM on April 15, 2010


Well I'm sure if Justice Thomas is willing to retire the President would be willing to nominate someone with street skills.
posted by edgeways at 8:57 PM on April 15, 2010


The fact that We the People are ruled by an Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot group of people is one of the most infuriating aspects of living in what is proclaimed daily to be The Greatest Democracy in the known Universe.

No conspiracy theories are necessary. Here is the Dumbo Jumbo in the middle of the room. This post about the implications of our faux-meritocracy in regards to the upper echelon of our judicial system is yet another rarely discussed facet of the Giant Gem which glints and gleams and spends half our money on the machinery of demonic military death networks rather than taking care of the hearts, minds and bodies of our nation's beautiful people.

Sorry for the purple prose, but I wanted to catch the spirit of the Tea People on Tax Day.
posted by kozad at 9:07 PM on April 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


So let me get this right, we don't want Supreme Court Justices to come from good law schools? Too Catholic? Who cares where they pray on weekends? I just want a Chief Justice whose undergrad degree isn't in tractor repair. Smart students end up in good schools, case closed I think there are enough morons in government already, and another one bucking up for a run. How bout we stay with the best and the brightest.
posted by timsteil at 9:12 PM on April 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


Now that Stevens, a Northwestern Law grad, is retiring, all eight remaining Supreme Court justices hail from either Harvard or Yale law school.

Justice Ginsburg is a Columbia alumna.

Is it time for some educational diversity on the court?

Not really. The kind of education you get at these schools is very different from the education at other kinds of schools. Remember that J.D.s are both academic and vocational degrees. Vanderbilt and Harvard are both very good (top 20) schools, but Vanderbilt is geared toward producing bar exam passers and Harvard is geared toward producing deeply analytical legal thinkers. And because the competition for employment is so fierce, only a few schools can afford not to have vocationally focused education.

If the level of analysis you want on the Supreme Court is "Well, the President is the head of the Executive branch, and there was that thing where Marbury never actually got his commission... so yeah I think we can fire U.S. Attorneys for purely political reasons" then, by all means, hire people without significant peer-reviewed scholarship in administrative law.

This isn't to say that nobody at Vanderbilt or anywhere else is incapable of meaningful scholarship, just that what you're looking for is so drastically more present among T6 alums that "educational diversity" isn't a very compelling goal by comparison.
posted by thesmophoron at 9:14 PM on April 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


kozad -

if I ever hear a Tea Person say something that eloquent and logical, i will fuck a pig.
posted by Lutoslawski at 9:14 PM on April 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


Wikipedia offers a breakdown of law schools by Supreme Court Justices trained. The extant schools which have produced three or more Justices are Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and the University of Michigan.
posted by Iridic at 9:21 PM on April 15, 2010


> Is it time for some educational diversity on the court?

Fo' sho'. Let's have a couple from Oxbridge. I hear Tokyo U is very good. I'm personally a big fan of Padua--Galileo, Copernicus, Vesalius, Tasso, Harvey, Nicholas of Cusa, Gabriele "fallopian tubes" Falloppio, Tasso, Elena Cornaro Piscopia (first woman PhD ever), Francis de Sales, Thomas Browne. Oh, Casanova.
posted by jfuller at 9:24 PM on April 15, 2010


Themophoron,

Ginsburg graduated from Columbia, but started at Harvard Law.
posted by HabeasCorpus at 9:29 PM on April 15, 2010


all eight remaining Supreme Court justices hail from either Harvard or Yale law school

Justice Ginsburg is a Columbia alumna.

Ginsburg graduated from Columbia, but started at Harvard Law.

I suppose Obama "hails from" Occidental then, instead of Columbia and Harvard?
posted by thesmophoron at 9:36 PM on April 15, 2010


Sorry if you didn't like my FPP language thesmophoron. I just wanted to point out that she is associated with the school as well. I honestly wasn't sure the best way to do it succinctly on the front page, and after thinking about it, I made a judgment call. (Thus 'hail from' which isn't the same as 'graduated from'). You can continue to critique me via memail or MeTa if you want.
posted by HabeasCorpus at 9:40 PM on April 15, 2010


I'm rooting hard for Diane Wood, as she is an alumnus of my institution.

Vanderbilt is geared toward producing bar exam passers and Harvard is geared toward producing deeply analytical legal thinkers. And because the competition for employment is so fierce, only a few schools can afford not to have vocationally focused education.

I think a lot of legal scholars, especially law professors at various institutions would beg to differ. Where do you draw this opinion from?

Also, having read plenty o' SCOTUS opinions of varying eras, I think some justices could stand to be a little less "deeply analytical" and a little better at creating effective doctrine.
posted by ishotjr at 9:41 PM on April 15, 2010


please insert comma after "professors." Ugh, brain in edit mode. Cannot resist correcting self.
posted by ishotjr at 9:43 PM on April 15, 2010


Speaking as someone who went to a state school for undergrad, and then a fancy pants law school (but not Harvard or Yale), I don't get at all the animosity toward those schools. Going to H/Y, especially for law school, doesn't appear to result in some sort of entitlement brainwashing. I have friends and coworkers from these places, and they are diverse in background, thinking, and comprehension of the law.

At least nowadays, all you really need is amazing grades and an amazing LSAT score to get into these "hallowed" ivy league schools. This is a more common result than you might think. As a result, you get a lot of people getting into so-called "elite" schools, and they come from all sorts of places.

One of the brightest of my classmates was an engineering guy from an A&M school who was raised in a small town in Texas, and who's family is not anyone's idea of privileged. He crushed law school. Easily. Yeah, he worked hard, but lots of people work hard in law school, and only a few of them blow it out of the water. He was one of them. Those of our classmates that went on to be Supreme Court clerks, they crushed it as well. And these people, the ones crazy good at law school, came from all sorts of backgrounds and circumstances, and they left law school equally different in temperament and outlook.

So then, after knowing these people, and thinking I was pretty familiar with the creme de la creme of law crushing, I recently met a current clerk for a SC Justice. And in just a 20 minute conversation at a random party in DC, I could tell that this guy would beat the pants off my super law friend. Just wreck him. Lap him in a race while running backwards on his hands. My wife told me later I was like a star-struck groupie meeting the Beatles (and I don't even LIKE the law). And this was just a clerk, not at all someone guaranteed to make it onto even a shortlist of Supreme Court candidates later in his career.

I guess my poorly drawn out point is, going to one of these schools doesn't turn you into some sort of crazy secret-handshaking brandy snifting douchebag that gets everything they want by dropping the H or Y name in conversation. The top law schools start with a solid base of pretty smart folks, and then does a good job of letting the students sort themselves out between the regulars and the rockstars of law. Eventually, a super lucky select few of these rockstars manage to have careers that meander correctly into being considered for the Supreme Court. Harvard and Yale, by dint of prestige and highly selective admission standards, just happen to be the ones that collect the most likely rockstars. So its not surprising that they end up dominating the Supreme Court. The name isn't a necessary or sufficient function of getting onto the Supreme Court, its just a natural correlation to the fact that Harvard and Yale are the most likely to have these super law nerds I've described.

Ginsburg is a perfect example. Yes she started at Harvard, and the misogyny was so unrelentingly horrible (At one point, the Harvard dean asked the women of the class what it felt like to occupy places that could have gone to deserving men) that she had no problem leaving for Columbia when her husband got a job in New York. After graduation, the only job she was offered by the "best" law firms of the country was LEGAL SECRETARY. That's right, she couldn't even be a lawyer despite graduating at the top of the class. Thanks for that, Harvard.

Then, even after having a strong letter of recommendation from Harvard, Justice Frankfurter turned her down for a clerkship position because she was a woman. Fat lot of good Harvard got her there. She then spent much of her career at the ACLU working on women's rights issues, which I'm sure was totally dependent on her Harvard affiliation. Even in 1978, before the Supreme Court, Ginsburg couldn't escape the withering sexism. During Ginsburg's oral argument in her last case before the Supreme Court, Justice Rehnquist asked Ginsburg "You won't settle for putting Susan B. Anthony on the new dollar, then?" Score another one for that awesome Harvard connection.

You could construct similar narratives for many of the Justices on the Court: Thomas, the son of impoverished southern farmers; Sotomayor, growing up in housing projects in the Bronx. I haven't seen anything to suggest that having gone to Harvard or Yale has wiped out those experiences and implanted some lockstep approach to legal analysis designed to curry favor to corporations or trample middle-class citizens. So there's no real basis for this H/Y bashing from what I can tell, other than some faux-populism anti-elitist hand-wringing. If the person is a super law nerd rocket scientist, and appropriately politically aligned, and doesn't have any skeletons, and happens to have the confluence of career events making them qualified enough for the SC bench without leaving a large enough paper trail to hurt them at the Senate hearings, then nominate them, regardless of where they went to school.
posted by shen1138 at 10:25 PM on April 15, 2010 [13 favorites]


The Court needs people who didn't go directly from college to law school. I reckon that matters more than where they went to school.

Does anyone actually believe this will happen? I mean, really; any post that values scholarly aptitude assumes that it's only embodied by people who passed certain educational milestones in the "proper" lock-step fashion, and that any divergence from that schedule suggests that they may be somehow deficient. We're conditioned to assume that someone who gets their law degree past the ripe old age of 25 just doesn't have what it takes.
posted by thisjax at 10:30 PM on April 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


I don't think that anyone is dumping on Harvard or Yale. It's just that there are easily a dozen or more law schools in the nation that produce comparable quality law grads. For only two institutions to be represented, therefore, is a statistical anomaly that seems due to something other than simply "looking for the best and brightest". Stanford, Berkeley, UChicago, UPenn, etc. aren't just chicken feed, after all.

Similarly, no one is dumping on Catholics, either. But the statistical anomaly of their improbably high representation does raise the legitimate question of the process of grooming candidates for the SCOTUS.
posted by darkstar at 12:11 AM on April 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


skull and bones
posted by telstar at 12:35 AM on April 16, 2010


Shen1138, that was a great and well written comment and I would love to favorite it. But the idea that the best and the brightest ONLY go to Yale or Harvard? That seems a little far fetched. I think that calling this "H/Y bashing" is a bit extreme. I would guess that most of the poor people graduating at the top of the class from these schools are doing alright for themselves. They may even get by without status as a protected class.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 1:30 AM on April 16, 2010


The Court needs people who didn't go directly from college to law school.


Lets be really honest here. Lets pretend one of our loved ones was in a terrible accident, and there were 2 doctors proposing 2 different courses of treatment to save their life. You had to choose which doctor to go with.

One went to med school at yale right after their bio degree at carnegie mellon. The other went to sacramento state for undergrad, then there is a 4 year gap, and then completion of a medical degree at florida state.

Which doctor would you want treating your loved one...and why is this different than a SC judge?

signed,
state school grad
posted by hal_c_on at 1:42 AM on April 16, 2010


... the one with the better track record, right?

Is this a trick question?
posted by kyrademon at 4:14 AM on April 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm less concerned with the school than with the life outside the school. Stevens was a codebreaker in the war, among other things; other Justices have even more compelling stories. I think what we're paying for here is what the irreplaceable experience adds to the interpretation of the law, not just the quality of the law education.
posted by atchafalaya at 4:30 AM on April 16, 2010


Vanderbilt is geared toward producing bar exam passers and Harvard is geared toward producing deeply analytical legal thinkers. And because the competition for employment is so fierce, only a few schools can afford not to have vocationally focused education.

This is pretty much crap. As someone who has attended both a top 5 law school and a 2nd tier law school, I can attest that the professors are about the same, with a few exceptions, and their approaches very similar.

I'd also say the intelligence of the top 10% of the students is the same. At the 2nd tier the students simply come from different life circumstances.
posted by miss tea at 4:52 AM on April 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


Just so everyone knows, the conventional wisdom in the legal academy is that there's little difference in the overall quality of education of law schools. Harvard and Yale aren't "better" because the professors are better at teaching their students. They're "better" because they get first pick of students. >95% of students would choose either of those law schools over any other. So the incoming class is strongly skewed in their favor, and that means the graduating class is going to be strongly skewed in their favor. It has nothing to do with "analytical legal thinking" vs. "vocational training." There's enough diversity of law school experiences within each school that there's no point in generalizing like that. You can get by taking lots of joke classes at any school. You can take rigorous theoretical constitutional electives anywhere, and you can take rigorous practice-oriented classes anywhere. The only constant throughout a school is the quality of students let in. That's why employers use law schools rankings/prestige as a shortcut.
posted by aswego at 5:36 AM on April 16, 2010


I went to college with a girl who got accepted to and attended a very prestigious. We were all very surprised because it had been rumored that she'd been on academic probation a couple of times. I figured she'd just had amazing LSAT scores or something I didn't know about. Then, a friend who was obsessed with law school admissions, as many law school applicants are, said that she found out the girl's father funded some kind of "chair" or "professorship" at said prestigious law school. I don't think she was ever in danger of clerking for any SC justice though.
posted by anniecat at 7:02 AM on April 16, 2010


Harvard is geared toward producing deeply analytical legal thinkers...

That made me laugh out loud.
posted by MarshallPoe at 8:19 AM on April 16, 2010


Two of the current Justices commented on this issue among others, per recent article in the National Law Journal that showed up on law.com. Here it is -- hope the link works.
posted by bearwife at 9:42 AM on April 16, 2010


Although I should add that the topic was racial diversity among clerks rather than diversity of law schools. As a Columbia Law grad myself, who did well enough grade wise to be selected for law review, I'd add that could care less about the law school of the clerks or the justices -- I care about their smarts, their common sense, their fidelity to the law, and how principled they are.
posted by bearwife at 9:46 AM on April 16, 2010


White House Furious At Suggestion That Potential Court Nominee Might Be Gay
posted by homunculus at 12:13 PM on April 16, 2010


Bearwife,

Yes, the abovethelaw link dealt with racial diversity among the clerks, but I found it pretty interesting that it was framed through the lens of these minority's access to top schools. It is definitely true that racial diversity among clerks cuts in the opposite direction: the higher-ranked schools are more able to include minority students, since they're better able to fund- and meet- the narrow tailoring Grutter requires when pursuing educational diversity. So it's a weird trade off, because if you support additional school diversity, you might actually be cutting against racial diversity.

I happen to agree with you about the qualifications I want for clerks and for justices. (Smarts, common sense, fidelity to the law, principled nature). But I do want to point out that I think you can find these people in large numbers at many of the schools in say, the top 10 or so. Schools like your alma mater, Columbia, or say, UChicago, UVA, hell, Vanderbuilt and Cornell, produce absolutely stellar legal minds- but statistically are hugely underrepresented on the court.

I think its more of a question of access, rather than intellect. The network at the top (for S.Ct. jobs, for top DOJ positions) is tiny tiny tiny, and doesn't pull in many people outside of TWO schools. This is also something of a recent development- the court has historically been composed of a broader range of both educational and professional backgrounds.
posted by HabeasCorpus at 2:42 PM on April 16, 2010



Lets be really honest here. Lets pretend one of our loved ones was in a terrible accident, and there were 2 doctors proposing 2 different courses of treatment to save their life. You had to choose which doctor to go with.

One went to med school at yale right after their bio degree at carnegie mellon. The other went to sacramento state for undergrad, then there is a 4 year gap, and then completion of a medical degree at florida state.

Which doctor would you want treating your loved one...and why is this different than a SC judge?


You were quoting me? Like you think this is a relevant comparison?

It's not even close. I don't really know what else to say. Your comment is just stupid.
posted by Father Tiresias at 11:07 PM on April 16, 2010


One went to med school at yale right after their bio degree at carnegie mellon. The other went to sacramento state for undergrad, then there is a 4 year gap, and then completion of a medical degree at florida state.

Which doctor would you want treating your loved one...and why is this different than a SC judge?

signed,
state school grad


Your bitterness about being a state school alum doesn't give you license to argue a point with terrible false dichotomies, sorry.

No one's talking about throwing the doors open to T3 school grads with questionable aptitude. The important idea here is that at the top — the only place that matters in this discussion — there is diversity in professional experience that isn't being valued for SC positions.
posted by thisjax at 12:16 AM on April 17, 2010


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