Educational and experiential diversity on the federal bench

A guest post by Lawrence Friedman

As recently noted in the Interdependent Third Branch, the novel coronavirus has caused the U.S. Supreme Court to close its doors to the public until further notice. Several of the justices fall into the category of persons most vulnerable to the disease: Stephen Breyer is 81 years old; Ruth Bader Ginsburg will be 87 next week; and Clarence Thomas is 71. Three other justices are in their sixties: Samuel Alito is 69, while both the chief justice, John Roberts, and Sonia Sotomayor are 65.

The list is a reminder of how gray the Court has become—and that the potential for multiple appointments is going to be a significant campaign issue in November. One aspect of that issue is the lack of diversity on the Court, which reflects the lack of diversity in the federal judiciary. A February report by the American Constitution Society put it bluntly: “judges who sit on the federal bench are overwhelmingly white and male.” In addition to gender and race, moreover, most judges at the highest levels of the federal system share another characteristic: they all attended a very small number of elite law schools. As the New York Times recently noted, most of President Donald Trump’s judicial appointees “have elite credentials, with nearly half having trained as lawyers at Harvard, Stanford, the University of Chicago or Yale.”

Consider the members of the Supreme Court. Four justices hold law degrees from Yale Law School, four from Harvard Law School and one – Ginsburg – started at Harvard and finished at Columbia Law School. Eight served as judges on federal appeals courts, while one – Kagan – served previously as solicitor general and, before that, dean of Harvard Law School. Just one –Sotomayor – served as a federal district court judge. Three served at one time as full-time law professors—Breyer and Kagan at Harvard, Ginsburg at Columbia.

Or, consider the members of the junior varsity Supreme Court, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Of the eleven judges not on senior status, five graduated from Harvard, two each from the law schools at the Universities of Virginia and Chicago, and one each from Stanford University and the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. Only two served as district court judges prior to being elevated to the Appeals Court.

Twenty judges total and, among them, they represent just seven law schools, with almost half just one, Harvard. Only three, moreover, know what it is like to oversee civil and criminal litigation on the ground, to hear motions to suppress and make evidentiary rulings at trial.

This lack of intellectual and experiential diversity is not new. Observing, a decade ago, that Sotomayor would add diversity to the supreme court in respect to ethnicity, gender and economic origins, Renée Landers and I nonetheless concluded that selecting nominees from within a narrow range of qualifications defined by pedigree effectively deprives the public of judges “who may see the world and the legal issues it presents in ways that are different and more helpful than those [judges] whose views on the law were shaped by essentially the same educational and professional experiences.”

The American Constitution Society is right: “Courts should look like the people they represent,” which I take to mean the citizens the federal judiciary serves. But such diversity should not be limited to gender and race or ethnicity. Rather, on the nation’s highest federal courts, it should encompass the varied educational and practical experiences available in a profession that produces countless lawyers who have not served as either federal appellate judges or law school professors.

As in other areas of the law, presidents and senators could look to the states for other approaches. Just as state courts have been leaders in exploring the breadth and depth of constitutional commitments to individual rights and liberties through their own constitutions, so too have appointing authorities in many states valued diverse educational and practical experiences in selecting judges for their high courts. Of the justices of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, for example, three attended Harvard and one Chicago, while two attended Suffolk University School of Law and one Boston University Law School. Five sat earlier in their careers on the state’s trial court.

Elite law schools and federal appellate judges have no monopoly on teaching legal reasoning or applying it, respectively. It stands to reason that lawyers trained to consider the practical implications of doctrinal changes and how such changes may affect the parties before them are likely to have a different appreciation for the consequences of appellate decisionmaking. This is not to suggest that these judges make better decisions—just that, to the extent each of us is shaped by our experiences, the high courts on which these judges sit are likely to benefit from the perspectives they bring to bear on the resolution of disputes over statutory and constitutional meaning. It is important, as the American Constitution Society and others maintain, that judges look like the people they serve. It should also be important that they reflect the ways in which most American lawyers appreciate both the law and the role judges play in defining it.

This post is the first of a larger exchange on Supreme Court qualifications and the nominating process. For Jordy Singer’s response, click here. For Lawrence Friedman’s reply, click here.

D.C. Circuit to begin live streaming oral arguments in September

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit will begin live audio streaming of its oral arguments when its new term commences in September. Chief Judge Merrick Garland made the announcement. D.C. joins several other circuit courts that have recently embraced streaming technology in the interest of improved transparency.

I wonder if anyone at One First Street is paying attention.

New wave of federal judicial nominees announced

President Trump has announced a new wave of federal judicial nominees, mostly to vacant positions on the Circuit Courts of Appeal.  Notably, they include Gregory Katsas, the current deputy White House Counsel, who was nominated for a seat on the D.C. Circuit.