Posted on June 5, 2012 at 10:35 am by Amanda Frost
The current members of the Supreme Court have remarkably similar backgrounds — they all attended either Harvard or Yale Law Schools, and have spent most of their careers in the cloistered setting of academia or appellate litigation. Although many have noted, and criticized, this lack of diversity, until now no one had compared the background of the current Justices with their predecessors. A new article by Professor Benjamin Barton does just that, confirming the perception that recent appointees lack the range of life experiences that characterized previous Courts. After canvassing an impressive amount of biographical data from the very first Chief Justice, John Jay, up to the most recent appointee, Justice Elena Kagan, Barton concludes that “the Roberts Court Justices have spent more pre-appointment time in legal academia, appellate judging, and living in Washington, D.C. than any previous Supreme Court. They also spent the most time in elite undergraduate and law school settings. Time spent in these pursuits has naturally meant less time elsewhere: The Roberts Court Justices spent less time in the private practice of law, in trial judging, and as elected politicians than any previous Court.”
So what should we make of that? Some contend that the Court is supposed to be an elite institution, not a representative one, and thus we are well-served by the appointment of brilliant intellectuals capable of understanding the complex legal questions that come before them. Others, such as Barton, argue that Supreme Court decisions often turn on policy or ideological preferences, and thus the Court’s work would benefit from appointees with a wider range of personal and professional experiences. Whatever one’s views on this question, Barton’s article supplies the data by which to compare the members of today’s Court, as well as future appointees, with their predecessors.