Some of our country’s greatest legal minds sit on the U.S. Supreme Court. When a nominee for our nation’s highest court is announced (as was the case in March of this year) much time is spent discussing the background of the nominee, including which school he or she went to or what publications she has authored. What sometimes gets lost in the conversation is the nominee’s core background and why that matters.
Current nominee Merrick Garland went to Harvard Law School, as did Justice Elena Kagan and Chief Justice John Roberts. Samuel Alito and Sonia Sotomayor went to Yale. But the Ivy League isn’t a direct pipeline to a seat of the Supreme Court. One of our greatest justices, John Paul Stevens, graduated from Northwestern University. What matters is years of hard work and the character that qualifies a candidate for the bench. That work can shape future justices in incredible ways. Long before she was named to the Court, Sonia Sotomayor spoke on the importance having a diverse Court that reflects the diversity of the nation.
In addition, Justice Clarence Thomas grew up in rural Georgia near Savannah. After completing law school at Yale he went to work as an assistant attorney general in Jefferson City, Missouri before moving on to Washington, D.C. He noted recently that he took his first job because it was the only one he was offered. Why? He graduated in a time when racial discrimination was still commonplace.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg graduated first in her class from Harvard Law School and didn’t have a single job offer. As a student, she had to tell the Dean at Harvard Law School that she was there merely so she could understand her husband’s work. After school, she went to work teaching and researching the law. Then, she went to work at the ACLU more than ten years after earning her degree. She ended up advocating for women’s rights before the very Court she would later join. Former Justice Sandara Day O’Connor tells a similar story after her graduation from Stanford in 1952.
The life experiences of Justice Thomas, a black man growing up in the South in the time of Jim Crow, and Justices Ginsburg and O’Connor, heading into their careers a time when women were expected to be homemakers and nothing more, inform how they view the cases they must judge. Life experiences affect every judge’s view of the world.
A diversity of backgrounds is essential to the Court. In an interview with PBS, Justice Anthony Kennedy observed that “A commitment to the constitution is not something that’s genetic, it’s not inherited, it’s not automatic. It has to be taught. And each generation must learn about the constitution and the values of constitutional institutions within the context of their own time, within the environment of their own time.” In the same interview, Justice Stephen Breyer noted the broad reach, not only of federal judges but also of those working locally,. Breyer said, “You will read in the newspaper more often about federal courts, but the law that affects people, the trials that affect human beings are by and large in the state courts. That’s the bread and butter of the judicial system.”
These qualifications are even reflected in the most recent nominee to the Court, Chief Judge Merrick B. Garland. He was the valedictorian of his public high school class in Illinois. He later attended Harvard University on a scholarship, where he graduated summa cum laude. He then attended Harvard Law School, graduating magna cum laude and served on the Harvard Law Review. Not born with a silver spoon in his mouth, he worked his way through school. After clerking for the Supreme Court, he became a U.S. Attorney and proseucted Timothy McVeigh after the Oklahoma City bombing. Unfortunately, politics has infected his nomination.
It’s important for powerful judges to reflect on the values of those they serve. Right now, every single justice sitting on the bench has a first-class education from a top university. But every justice comes from a different place and went in a different direction after law school before they came together on the Supreme Court. Diversity on the Court ensures that the lives of those in rural Georgia matter just as much as those in New York City or any other city or town in the United States. The current Court has come a long way toward diversity, and it should continue to move in that direction.