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Posted at 2:55 PM ET, 05/10/2010

Yale and Harvard at the Supreme Court

By Valerie Strauss

Assuming President Obama wins confirmation of Solicitor General Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court, that august body will be exclusively filled with judges who earned their law degrees at Harvard or Yale.

That seems somewhat remarkable given that there are more than 1 million lawyers in the United States and 200 law schools approved by the American Bar Association (seven of them are provisionally approved).

Should we care?

Jonathan Turley, a law scholar at George Washington University, does, according to this story from the McClatchy Newspapers.

“You’re voiding a wide array of interesting and potentially brilliant nominees,” he was quoted as saying. “It’s like insisting you’re only going to read books by two authors."

He further said, “You’re taking justices from the same small educational pools, and those justices are reinforcing that same limited population pool in the selection of their clerks. There are certain dangers in small population pools. They tend to replicate the same types of thinking.”

Sheldon Goldman, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and an expert on the federal judiciary, disagrees in the article

"One would expect the top legal minds of the country to have gone to the very best law schools," Goldman was quoted in the article as saying. It is, he said, “somewhat of a coincidence” that all of the justices besides the retiring John Paul Stevens, who went to Northwestern Law School, went to Harvard of Yale, as did Kagan.

"I can’t buy that a Harvard or a Yale is so parochial that the people coming out have a narrow vision," he said. "If that were the case, we wouldn’t have such a sharply polarized Supreme Court."

Well, yes, that’s a point: The court is polarized. There is more than one view of the Constitution at these school.

But that may not be THE point. Perhaps this Harvard/Yale club at the Supreme Court is that, in fact, it is not such a coincidence.

This is a country where status is not supposed to matter but does anyway, and there is no denying that Harvard, and then, Yale, have the most in higher education.

That is not to say that they are actually “better” than other schools; certainly there a number of law schools that offer equally wonderful educations. But among the elite, Harvard and Yale are somehow more elite in the public consciousness. (It reminds me a little of that old song kids used to sing when they played with a jump rope: “I’ve been to London, I’ve been to Dover, I’ve traveled the whole world over.” )

That elite status carries with it an assumption -- at least among some -- that graduates of these schools are generally smarter than everybody else. That's not true, but it doesn't stop people from giving Yale and Harvard graduates an intellectual pass.

When we tell young people that it doesn’t really matter where they go to college, and that the same opportunities abound for anybody willing to work hard enough, and then they see who gets nominated to the Supreme Court, they know that it isn't necessary so.

Yes, there are studies that show that many graduates of non-Ivy League schools do equally well in terms of career and salary. But for some jobs, in America today, like a job on the Supreme Court, Harvard and Yale rule.

And that's too bad. Because its never a good idea in a country that prides itself on diversity to have none when it comes to legal education on the most important court in the land.

Do you care? Why or why not?

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By Valerie Strauss  | May 10, 2010; 2:55 PM ET
Tags:  Harvard and Yale and supreme court, Ivy League and Supreme Court, Kagan and Harvard, Supreme Court justices and Harvard, Supreme Court nomination, elite and law school, justices who went to harvard  
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It doesn't concern me. Both Law Schools contributed to both the conservative and liberal wings of the court, and the variety of ages suggests that neither the professors nor a single educational philosophy dominated those justices' legal educations.

Still, it does encourage me to know that the 8 current justices plus Kagan attended 6 different undergraduate institutions (not counting years abroad; Princeton is alma mater for three, including Kagan), and that they studied a variety of undergraduate majors. If they all majored in the same subject, that would trouble me more.

(I am not a lawyer, by the way.)

Posted by: carlrosin | May 10, 2010 8:33 PM | Report abuse

This nomination would be less bothersome if Obama hadn't gone to Harvard Law School. Harvard grads circling the wagons. I don't think that George Washington would approve as this all smacks of nobility, land grants, prestige, that sort of stuff. If Jefferson had a spare minute, he would enter into their chambers, dust off his gardening attire, then take leave. And then there's Ben Franklin - now he would enter into the chambers, sport his naked head (wigless) and then shake it disapprovingly.

Surely, the other 198 law schools produced some worthy souls.

Posted by: shadwell1 | May 10, 2010 9:42 PM | Report abuse

It is interesting to note that the last president that did not come from Harvard or Yale was Reagen. Therefore, I think that Harvard/Yale picks would be natural. This is less about nobility and more about how our country tends to look to Harvard and Yale for leadership. If we elect a president in the future who did not go to Yale/Harvard, the Supreme Court will probably see more Law School diversity.

Posted by: spinkava | May 10, 2010 11:50 PM | Report abuse

If Yale and Harvard are where the most qualified judges attended school, then so be it. The current body of justices may have attended the same law schools, but attended different undergraduate institutions and come from very different backgrounds. I'd say this body is more diverse than ever. Certain schools attract and produce certain students and alumni. Yale and Harvard just happen to produce Supreme Court justices.

Check out the Campus 411 blog for more information on this topic and others facing students today.

Posted by: jimmyjames11 | May 11, 2010 3:58 PM | Report abuse

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