Tuesday, June 9, 2009

An Ivy-Covered Path

If confirmed, Judge Sonia Sotomayor, who attended Princeton University and Yale Law School, would sit alongside seven other Ivy League graduates on the court. Only Justice John Paul Stevens provides a measure of non-Ivy diversity, having graduated from the University of Chicago and the Northwestern University School of Law.

9 lawyers.

In the history of the court, half of the 110 justices were undergraduates, graduate students or law students in the Ivy League; since 1950, the percentage is 70. From the beginning of the 20th century, every president who has seated a justice has picked at least one Ivy graduate.

A rising elitism.

“There is both a funneling and homogenizing effect from these schools,” said G. William Domhoff, a professor of psychology and sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and the author of “Who Rules America?”

Lack of diversity.

The effect, Professor Domhoff said, “plays out in terms of social networks, cultural/social capital, and a feeling of being part of the in-group.” It is one of subtle conditioning — what Sam Rayburn, the former House speaker, meant when he famously said, “If you want to get along, go along.”

Don't step over the defined limits.

Even those who might not agree with Professor Domhoff’s political critique would like to see more educational variety on the Supreme Court. Limiting the universe of nominees largely to Ivy League graduates “is not good for the court or the country,” said Linda L. Addison, the partner in charge of the New York office of Fulbright & Jaworski. “Educational diversity would strengthen the court, as have racial, ethnic, gender and religious diversity.”

J. William Fulbright was a senator from Arkansas; Leon Jaworski had quite a portfolio, including being special prosecutor during the Watergate investigations.

The lack of a top-tier law degree can become a basis for attacking a nominee. When President George W. Bush nominated Harriet E. Miers to succeed Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, one of the points hammered by her conservative opponents was that she had attended the Dedman School of Law at Southern Methodist University.

Conservatives wanted a more ideologically correct candidate, and recognized she was a lightweight.

Defenders of such appointments say the notion of a homogenous set of graduates from elite universities is an overblown myth. William G. Bowen, a former president of Princeton, said the cookie-cutter accusation missed the role of a student’s character.

Good point.

“They come out as very different human beings, even though they came through a similar process,” Mr. Bowen said. “What you hope these people have in common is discipline, and the ability to lead from assumptions to analysis to conclusions. But that is not to say that they’re going to use the same analysis, or come to the same conclusions.”

But then he contradicts it. If they use the same methodology and reach the same results, there is no diversity of thought.

Edward B. Fiske, who publishes a leading college guide, pointed out that although John Kerry and George W. Bush attended Yale at about the same time, “you’d never know they went to the same school.” And while Judge Sotomayor graduated from the same law school as Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr., they appear to occupy different parts of the political spectrum.

Very good point.

Calvin Trillin, a journalist and author who has written about his experiences as a Midwesterner attending Yale in the 1950s, said, “I’m not bothered by the fact that nine out of nine, or six out of nine, went to Ivy League law schools,” because the institutions have grown more diverse. “These places have become, themselves, much more like the country,” Mr. Trillin said.

The court’s ties to elite institutions go back through the nation’s history, Professor Epstein said. Among the first on the court were John Jay (King’s College, the future Columbia) and William Cushing (Harvard). Of the nation’s 110 justices, 18 went to Harvard Law, 8 to Yale Law, and 6 to Columbia. (The largest plurality of justices over all, 44, attended no law school, since one could practice law in early days without a degree.)

Couldn't do that today.

Some justices proudly perpetuate the idea that the right school is an essential credential. In April, after a talk at the American University Washington College of Law, Justice Antonin Scalia (Georgetown and Harvard Law) told a student how he chose his clerks: “From the law schools that basically are the hardest to get into. They admit the best and the brightest, and they may not teach very well, but you can’t make a sow’s ear out of a silk purse. If they come in the best and the brightest, they’re probably going to leave the best and the brightest.”

He is something else.

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