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Can Non-Ivy Law Grads Become SCOTUS Justices?

By Neetal Parekh on August 05, 2010 | Last updated on January 24, 2023

"What do you want to be when you grow up?"

Ah, the question that has marked time for each of us. We can remember being asked this simple query back in the days of playtime tea parties and toy truck meets and perhaps even as recently as well, yesterday after lunch. Regardless of when you first or last had to answer it, the question suggests limitlessness, endless possibility, and maybe even a William Shatner-Star Trek intro kind of epicness. If you have been single-mindedly focused on one goal--attaining supreme judicial status as a SCOTUS justice--then a relevant question may be whether there was any ivy at your law school.

The ivy league-SCOTUS connection

The Anchorage Daily News reports that of the 111 justices that have been appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court since the Judiciary Act Of 1789, approximately one third graduated from Harvard, Yale, or Columbia law schools. And according to the New York Times, "since 1956, there have never been fewer than three justices from Harvard and/or Yale sitting on the court at any given time. And since 1988, Harvard and Yale alumni together have consistently represented a majority of the court." They even have a few graphs on hand for good measure.

Kagan and "Harvale" Law

The confirmation of Elena Kagan means that all of the sitting SCOTUS justices are from exactly 2 law schools of the over 200 in the nation. Namely, a panel of 9 justices from Harvard and Yale. The debate seems to then be--are SCOTUS justices representatives of law practitioners across the country, the finest in the nation, both, neither, or it depends. Yes, and you have 1:48 minutes to make your selection. The problem is that there is no single answer. Some legal commentators recognize the potential for SCOTUS justices to represent legal experience and are calling for no more Ivy-leaguers to be appointed to the highest office of U.S. law. Others are saying Ivy league brand justices are exactly what we need and refute the idea that SCOTUS justices should represent anything, except intellectual excellence. And still others are somewhat satisfied and somewhat dissatisfied. They reflect that Ivy league law is a good thing for SCOTUS but want more. If anything, the Kagan nomination process commenced a broader reflection on the role of the law school experience, how it affects broader opportunities for lawyers, and how it may frame the lense through which legal practitioners analyze and interpret law.

How does this affect your chances of becoming a SCOTUS justice?

As change constantly reminds us of its inevitability, consider the current record-breaking trends of law school attendance and interest in pursuing law--whether to do something law-related or not. And then factor in the rising cost of law school, the slightly-dismal job prospectives, and perceived waning of career and internship opportunities. The outcome doesn't seem to match the equation...people are still going to law school. Lots of them. To lots of law schools. And in a few years there will be more law graduates than ever, with law, pre-law, and post-J.D. experience spanning geography, legal education, political leanings, cultural values, and unique life stories. Add to that about a quarter-century of work experience and then you have individuals who may be in the running to be our future Supreme Court justices. So can non-ivy law grads become SCOTUS justices? We don't think it would be too presumptuous to say, it's really anyone's game. In the meanwhile, congratulations are due to Justice Kagan on her confirmation and for ushering in a new first. The first time that three women serve on the high court at the same time.

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* please note: this article was updated to reflect Elena Kagan's SCOTUS confirmation, which happened to have been announced soon after posting.

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