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May. 10 2010 - 11:53 am | 776 views | 0 recommendations | 6 comments

With Kagan, another round of Ivy League nepotism

Here is the New York Times on the Elena Kagan nomination:

A New Yorker who grew up in Manhattan, Ms. Kagan earned degrees from Princeton, Oxford and Harvard Law School, worked briefly in private practice, clerked for Justice Thurgood Marshall, served as a Senate staff member and worked as a White House lawyer and domestic policy aide under President Bill Clinton. She was nominated for an appeals court judgeship in 1999, but the Senate never voted on her nomination.

[...]

If the Senate confirms Ms. Kagan, who is Jewish, the Supreme Court for the first time will have no Protestant members. In that case, the court would be composed of six justices who are Catholic and three who are Jewish. It also would mean that every member of the court had studied law at Harvard or Yale.

I don’t have much to say about the substance of President Obama’s pick.  Supreme Court nominations aren’t really my area of expertise, though if you’re looking for a good take, I would recommend SCOTUSBlog’s round-up.  Where I will comment, however, is on the optics of Kagan’s nomination.  While it’s great that the Supreme Court could have three women on it by summer’s end, we’re still left with the problem of Ivy League nepotism on the Court.  Of the three likely picks for the nomination, two — Kagan and Garland — earned their undergraduate degrees from Ivy League schools, and their law degrees from Harvard. By contrast, Diane Wood earned her B.A. and J.D. from the University of Texas School of Law, and has spent most of her legal career in Chicago.  Indeed, the justice Kagan is slated to replace, John Paul Stevens, earned his degree from Northwestern University.

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The overrepresentation of Ivy League graduates on the Supreme Court (and on appellate courts) has little to do with ability and everything to do with personal and institutional relationships.  Great legal minds aren’t exclusive to Harvard and Yale, and I think we’re doing ourselves a real disservice by restricting our “nomination pool” to the usual group of elite East Coast law schools.  Even if the Court is otherwise diverse, justices from extremely similar educational backgrounds will carry similar habits of mind and similar ways of seeing the world.  A justice from outside the Ivy League might see the legal landscape in ways significantly different from her peers, might find different cases compelling, and might take a different approach to legal reasoning.

In any case, as long as powerful politicians continue receive their educations from the Northeast corridor, it’s likely that the Ivy League will continue to dominate high court nominations.  Hopefully though, some future president will find it worthwhile to reach out to talented justices from outside the 223 mile stretch between Harlem and Cambridge.


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  1. collapse expand

    What bugs me isn’t even that we have yet another Harvard/Yale kinda person sitting on the court… it’s that, once again, we have someone who has experience on the Solicitor General side (that is, the side of the government) rather than someone (anyone!) who has experience with the Defense.

    I would rather have a Justice who Quotes Mao’s Little Red Book who used to work in the Public Defender’s office than any number of “Mainstream” Harvard/Yale types with primarily Prosecutorial experience (again).

  2. collapse expand

    You are only concerned about that type of behavior as it relates to the supreme court? It really goes to show how it doesn’t matter what you know as much as who you know. America really has a caste system……

  3. collapse expand

    “A justice from outside the Ivy League might see the legal landscape in ways significantly different from her peers, might find different cases compelling, and might take a different approach to legal reasoning.”

    But, you see, this is why someone from that small group hasn’t been chosen by Obama or previous presidents. We don’t want judges to “see things differently” ;)

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    I am a blogger and occasional freelance writer. Usually, you'll find me here, but I occasionally contribute to PostBourgie.com, as well as Spencer Ackerman's blog (when he's away). At my old Wordpress digs, I blogged about progressive politics, public policy, nerdy things and food, and here at True/Slant, I intend to do the same. I'm all about the social media, so feel free to follow me on Twitter: jbouie, or friend me on Facebook (though I might make you wait awhile). And if you'd rather avoid social media, you can always email me at jamelle DOT bouie AT gmail DOT com.

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