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December 15th, 2017

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Are students from Ivy League schools the only ones who can interpret the law?

Dan K. Thomasson

By Dan K. Thomasson

Published Oct. 28, 2014

Are students from Ivy League schools the only ones who can interpret the law?

Reading about a widely reported visit to Yale University by three of its alums who are Supreme Court justices, I couldn't help but notice that only three law schools are represented at the top of what may be the most important branch of our government, the judiciary.

I must confess early in this minor rant that I am an unrelenting advocate of the Midwest. My roots are so deep in that soil that even 50 years in this multicultured, half eastern, half southern environment hasn't managed to loosen the 200 year deposit of soil around them. Some might say worse luck for me and accuse me of having an inferiority complex most Midwesterners wear without realizing it.

Only when one understands that five members of the highest court in the land are law graduates of Harvard, three from Yale and one from Columbia does it seem that chip on our shoulders might be justified. While Chief Justice of the United States John Roberts shares my Indiana heritage, that is tempered by the fact that he is a Harvard "twofer" — undergraduate and law school. Columbia sneaks into the picture only because Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg apparently decided four years of Harvard College was enough and she would broaden her view by attending law school at New York City's representative in the Ivy League. That of course is not traveling very far afield.

What is my point in all this? Well, considering that most of these justices were taught by the same professors in schools with long histories of supplying the bulk of top federal jurists, the aura of sameness in philosophy and legal principle seems inevitable. According to those who purport to know, Harvard is rated as conservative and Yale as liberal. Although that obviously doesn't preclude crossovers from either philosophical principle.

The Washington Post noted that in the 70's Justices Clarence Thomas, who admits to not having a very good time at the New Haven school, and Samuel Alito Jr., walked the Yale Law School halls together along with former President Bill Clinton and presidential wannabe Hillary Rodham (now Clinton). Justice Sonia Sotomayor was only a few years later in 1979. Unsurprisingly, Yale recently bestowed its Award of Merit on the three justices.

One can only come to the conclusion in all of this that few other institutions are worthy of training the men and women who can interpret our laws and (many argue) also make them in contravention of the Constitution.

So how does this occur? The explanation can only be a network that is self perpetuating going back to the days of the country's birth. Since there weren't many schools, they became the center of professional learning. Harvard, the nation's first institution of higher education, naturally became the standard. That was followed a bit later by Yale and Princeton and other brother schools that received an indelible label of excellence tattooed across their Ivy walls whether they deserved it.

That branding, perpetuated by a host of alums and bought into by even those who came from elsewhere, remains at the expense of dozens of other qualified law schools across the land among them the Universities of Michigan, Chicago, and Northwestern in the Midwest and Virginia and Duke in the South. Presidents schooled in the Ivy League appoint justices from there far more often than not.

By the way it is important here to say that the man who is given credit for writing the Declaration of Independence and for helping guide the nation toward a central constitution, Thomas Jefferson, didn't go to Yale or Harvard but to the second oldest college in America, William and Mary.

Not to denigrate the worthiness of these schools, I think it is fair to suggest that top candidates now and then from other learning environments might provide different perspectives.

At an event where the U.S. Marine Band in all its glory struck up a rousing version of what obviously was a college song, then President George H.W. Bush asked me to identify the music. Rather incredulous, I said that it was the traditional fight song of a Midwestern institution I had attended.

"Where?" he asked.

"Indiana University," I replied, somewhat surprised he didn't ask where Indiana was then I remembered his vice president hailed from there.

"Oh," he said.

I wanted to say "Boola! Boola!" but did not. Does someone want to knock the chip off my shoulder?

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Dan Thomasson is an op-ed columnist for McClatchy-Tribune and a former vice president of Scripps Howard Newspapers.

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