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An “Elitist” Ivy-League Justice?

Chief Justice John Marshall-- he only went to William and Mary

Chief Justice John Marshall-- he only went to William and Mary

There is a very strange consensus developing relating to the next Supreme Court Justice nominee. As Andrew Romano reports over at the Newsweek blog:

Finally, Democrats and Republicans agree on something. Too bad it’s not something worth agreeing on.

In Washington, D.C., a bipartisan consensus seems to be forming around the idea that President Obama should choose a judge without an Ivy League education to replace John Paul Stevens. Last Sunday, Bill Kristol–who went to Harvard (both undergrad and grad), married a fellow Harvard alum, and sent his son to Harvard–urged the president via FOX News to select a non-Ivyite for the post, saying that “it would be good to have a nominee that stood up against powerfulinterests like the elite law schools, which… have done a lot of damage.”

Meanwhile, the Washington Post reported a few days later that “many” Senate Democrats have a “particular preference” for “a nominee who comes from outside the usual background of Ivy League law schools.” As Chuck Schumer–Harvard College, Harvard Law–put it, “I’ve always liked someone with practical experience.”

Read the rest of Romano’s piece to get his specific view on the issue, but let me just add a comment. (And in the interest of full disclosure, let me note that I never attended an Ivy-League school.)

What troubles me is that this would-be consensus seems to be part of a general tend in American politics to reject anything that has the appearance of being elite. And while I believe it is proper to reject leaders or judges that are snobs or disconnected from reality or condescending or patronizing, I think that in our leadership– both political and judicial– seeking the “elite” is not a bad thing. While the word “elite” has come to be associated with snobs, one of its core dictionary definitions is the choice or best of anything considered collectively, as of a group or class of persons.” Using this definition, don’t we want an elite surgeon to perform our neurosurgery? Don’t we want an elite group of commandos to rescue a person held hostage? In other words, don’t we want to try to get the best for our most challenging tasks? I don’t really care where the next Supreme Court Justice when to undergrad or law school, but I do want to try to get a person that would be among the best– among the elite.

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One Comment

  • Jon Zimmer says:

    Prof. Arend:

    Not every possible member of the “elite” went to Harvard, Yale, or Columbia Law like the remaining eight members of the Court did. (Heck, Justice Stevens went to Northwestern Law). Depending on what you call the “first-tier” of law schools in America, there are between 50-100 schools, all of whom have at least some really smart graduates. Where’s the love for, say, Georgetown, UVA, George Washington, American, Michigan, Texas, UNC, NYU, Chicago, Penn, Berkley, William & Mary?

    Possibly related story: A few years ago Justice Scalia came to speak at our law review’s symposium, and one of the students asked how a law student becomes “wildly successful” (read: gets a Supreme Court clerkship without having gone to a top 14 law school). While Scalia said that the Supreme Court naturally draws its clerks from places like Harvard or Yale (!), he did say that he inherited one clerk from the justice he replaced that he would have never hired on his own, because the guy went to Ohio State. That clerk, Jeff Sutton, is now a federal appeals judge on the Sixth Circuit.

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Anthony Clark Arend is Professor of Government and Foreign Service at Georgetown University and the Director of the Master of Science in Foreign Service in the Walsh School of Foreign Service.

Commentary and analysis at the intersection of international law and politics.