Supreme Court research highlights calls for educational diversity on the bench


Washington— Move over, Harvard and Yale. With Retirement of Judge Stephen Breyer opening up a vacancy on the Supreme Court, President Biden is again pressured to sideline the Ivy League and give public university alumni a chance.

Mr. Biden is set to appoint the first black woman to the nation’s highest court, and if the Senate upholds his choice, it would be the first time that two African-American judges have served on the court at the same time. Four women would also be on the bench simultaneously. Now some on Capitol Hill are also urging the president to bring some educational diversity to the Supreme Court with his pick.

And with a bench full of Harvard or Yale law school graduates — with University of Notre Dame Law School graduate Judge Amy Coney Barrett the only exception — the public school pedigree of the U.S. District Judge J. Michelle Childs is announced as an asset to his candidacy.

“I wish the court had a lot more balance, a little common sense,” said GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. said “Facing the Nation” Last week. “Not everyone has to be from Harvard, Yale. It’s fine to go to a public university and get your law degree.”

Democratic Congressman Jim Clyburn, the third-highest-ranking member of the House who helped secure Mr. Biden’s pledge to appoint the first black woman to the Supreme Court, also praised Childs’ training and the message that his appointment would send to young Americans.

Supreme Court Biden
Judge J. Michelle Childs listens during her nomination hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington on April 16, 2010.

Charles Dharapak/AP

“He says to every little kid up there who is growing up in moderate circumstances, who needs the help of the whole community to raise her, to get scholarships to go to school because she couldn’t allow you to go otherwise, go to public schools because you didn’t get an offer from one of the great private schools it tells them you have as much chance of benefiting from the greatness of this country as don’t anyone else”, Clyburn said “Facing the nation”.

Democratic Congressman Al Green of Texas also said you don’t have to be an Ivy League alumnus to sit on the High Court: “The qualifications of a candidate for the High Court supreme should not depend on the university he attended, but more importantly, who are they from.”

Childs, 55, attended the University of South Florida and the University of South Carolina Law School, and she would be the only judge to attend public universities, if Mr. Biden selects her for the Supreme Court and that it is confirmed by the Senate.

A 2016 analysis of the educational backgrounds of members of the Supreme Court conducted by Jason Iuliano and Avery Stewart found that among justices with law degrees, 30% graduated from Harvard, followed by 12% from Yale and 10% from Columbia. The highest court in the land has had no shortage of a Harvard Law graduate since 1881.

“There’s something valuable about having people from different backgrounds and life experiences sitting in a room discussing the case,” said Iuliano, a law professor at the University of Utah, at CBS News. “You get nine people in a room who all have the same background, and they’ll look at it from the same vantage point and have similar approaches.”

Thanks to his choices in federal justice, Mr. Biden has sought to fill a gap in the legal professions represented on the bench, with 30% of its judicial nominees in 2021 having worked as public defenders, according to the Alliance for Justice, a liberal legal defense organization.

The president also broke the record for the total number of public defenders appointed to federal circuit courts, with six of his circuit court nominees having that experience. Seventy-three percent of Mr. Biden’s candidates are women and nearly 65% ​​are people of color, according to the Justice Alliance.

But applicants’ educational backgrounds often receive less attention, even as Iuliano and Stewart found that educational diversity within the federal judiciary was at an all-time low in 2016, and a dwindling number of law schools are claiming a growing share of judgeships.

Of the 2,917 federal judges who served between 1789 and 2014 who graduated from law school, nearly 10% went to Harvard, while more than 4% went to Yale, the researchers found.

Iuliano attributed the trend of less educational diversity, especially among Supreme Court nominees, to the confirmation process, which has become more deadly and politicized over the decades.

“Part of that is downplaying the different avenues the opposition can use to attack your candidate,” he said. “Nobody ever came out and said you shouldn’t have picked the Harvard or Yale grad because they’re not bench-suitable.”

But “you lose a lot of people who are extremely smart and skilled but don’t have the same pedigree, and they get kicked out for that because you’re going to give the opposition a line of attack,” he said. he declares. .

Minimizing potential areas of attack could be even more of a crucial consideration for Mr. Biden and his eventual nominee given the razor-thin margins in the Senate, where Democrats and Republicans each hold 50 seats and Vice President Kamala Harris – graduate from the University of California Hastings College of the Law – casts deciding votes.

“Given the split in the Senate at this point, anything that could lose a single vote could derail the process,” Iuliano said. “Risk aversion seems to be a very central or important consideration at this point in who can cross the finish line.”

Benjamin Barton, author of the forthcoming book “The Credentialed Court: Inside the Cloistered, Elite World of American Justice,” said the focus on applicants with Ivy League backgrounds has “hardened and crystallized.” over time, the Republican and Democratic presidents draw from a pool of Ivy League-educated Supreme Court nominees.

“This court is the most diverse in terms of gender and race, and with the addition of Biden, this court will be the most diverse in terms of gender and race. We are making tremendous progress,” said Barton, professor of law at university. of Tennessee, said. “That being said, it’s a strangely unrepresentative court given the experiences these people have had. It’s a tiny percentage of the population that went to Ivy League undergraduate or law schools. It’s the most representative in terms of gender and race, but the least representative in terms of all the other factors of their life experience.”

The White House has confirmed that Childs is among the women in the study to succeed retired Justice Stephen Breyer on the Supreme Court. She joins a list of more than ten candidates Mr Biden weighs in, which includes Washington federal appeals court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson and California Supreme Court Justice Leondra Kruger.

Jackson graduated from Harvard Law, while Kruger went to Yale Law.

White House officials have been tight-lipped about the selection process, though a memo sent Monday to lawmakers and outside groups pointed out that Mr. Biden “chooses from a multitude of accomplished and inspiring black women with the strongest track record, credentials and abilities one could have for our nation’s highest court.”

“It is high time for a black woman to serve on the Supreme Court, and there is a bipartisan tradition to ensure that the wealth of our country is represented in its leadership and on the highest Court,” notes the memo. White House, obtained by CBS News, mentioned.

Ed O’Keefe contributed to this report


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