For about a decade, every single one of the nine seats on the U.S. Supreme Court was occupied by someone who graduated from an Ivy League law school, but that is no longer true.
Amy Coney Barrett, an alumna of University of Notre Dame Law School in Indiana, is now an associate justice on the Supreme Court.
“Notre Dame basically is the Ivy League of Catholic school education, and so there are a lot of students who get into Yale and Harvard but who pick Notre Dame because it’s Notre Dame,” says Peter Lake, professor of law and Charles A. Dana chair at Stetson University College of Law in Florida. “It actually – even though it’s ranked quote-unquote lower — it is for all intents and purposes an elite law school in terms of student selection and prestige. It is the school of first choice for a lot of people who are devout Catholics.”
Certain Ivy law schools have a track record of producing an extraordinary number of Supreme Court justices.
Lake, the director of Stetson’s Center for Excellence in Higher Education Law and Policy who himself has a J.D. degree from Harvard, says one result of having so many Supreme Court justices from prestigious academic institutions is that they tend to associate themselves with complicated legal philosophies such as textualism. Their legal opinions are often difficult for nonlawyers to comprehend because they are very abstract, Lake suggests.
“The thing I’m getting a little nervous about with the court is that the only people who can really understand what the Supreme Court is saying are the people who are trained to understand what the Supreme Court is saying,” he says. “You read some of these opinions now, and unless you have advanced legal training, you can’t really understand. You can understand who won and who lost, but in terms of the reasoning, people get lost in the weeds.”
Timothy R. Johnson, author of “Oral Arguments and Decision Making on the United States Supreme Court,” explains that a degree from a top law school has traditionally made it easier for a nominee to get through the Supreme Court confirmation process, though nowadays a justice’s political ideology may be just as important a factor in the process as their academic credentials.
“It’s a really easy heuristic for quality, so I don’t have to look too hard or give too much of an explanation if I pick a nominee from Harvard or Yale or Stanford or Columbia, because I can just point to the fact that they went to one of the top five law schools in the country,” says Johnson, the Morse Alumni Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Law at the University of Minnesota College of Liberal Arts.
Ben Widlanski, a partner with the Kozyak Tropin & Throckmorton law firm in Florida, suggests that aspiring Supreme Court justices may be choosing to go to prestigious law schools to optimize their odds of becoming a federal judge.
“They’ve seen that if you go to Yale, you’re more likely to get a Supreme Court clerkship than if you don’t, and if you get a Supreme Court clerkship, that puts you on the glide path to a federal judgeship,” says Widlanski, who earned his J.D. degree from Columbia Law School.
The resumes of Supreme Court justices appointed during the 20th century show a lot more variety in their academic backgrounds than the resumes of those appointed during the 21st century.
U.S. News looked into where Supreme Court justices who were appointed in the 20th or 21st century earned their law degrees, and some interesting patterns emerged.
For one, until the 21st century, the majority of Supreme Court justices had a bachelor’s of law degree, commonly known as an LL.B., rather than a Juris Doctor degree, commonly known as a J.D. In the mid-1960s and early 1970s, U.S. law schools began to replace LL.B. programs with J.D. programs.
Even though today a J.D. is the standard entry-level credential for lawyers, it is not a requirement to serve on the Supreme Court. Historical LL.B. programs where students could enroll only if they already had a college degree are directly comparable to contemporary J.D. programs.
Many Supreme Court justices have had LL.B degrees rather than J.D. degrees. For instance, former associate justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg hads an LL.B. from Columbia University — she started at Harvard Law and transferred after relocating to New York — and former Chief Justice William Rehnquist had an LL.B. from Stanford University. Both ascended to the pinnacle of the legal profession without a J.D.
However, it should be noted that both Rehnquist and Ginsburg earned their LL.B. degrees after obtaining undergraduate degrees, and their graduate-level legal educations were functionally equivalent to those of modern-day J.D. students.
Another notable pattern is the high proportion of justices who earned their law degrees from elite law schools. Among the 60 justices who were appointed in the 20th and 21st centuries, 38 received law degrees from law schools that are ranked among the top 25 in the 2021 Best Law Schools rankings.
However, the other 22 justices in this group did not boast a law degree from a top-25 law school. Eleven of them earned a law degree from a lower-ranked law school, including one justice who was initially denied his law degree because he was so young when he attended law school and one justice who earned his law degree from a law school that no longer exists. The other 11 justices did not have law degrees. Among the 11 without law degrees, six attended law school without receiving a degree, and five did not attend law school at all.
It used to be common for aspiring U.S. attorneys to apprentice for an experienced lawyer and learn about the law through work experience rather than in a school setting, and many Supreme Court justices in the early 20th century chose this nonacademic route. The Supreme Court justices in the past century who did earn formal law degrees obtained them from a variety of public and private schools.
Two justices appointed during the 20th century earned more than one law degree: Sherman Minton, who had an LL.B. from Indiana University–Bloomington and an LL.M. from Yale University, and Lewis Powell, who had an LL.B. from Washington and Lee University and an LL.M. from Harvard University.
Here is a summary of the legal education of each sitting Supreme Court justice. Each has a degree from a prestigious law school. The justices are listed in alphabetical order, according to their last name.
Associate Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr.
Alito earned his J.D. degree from Yale and, while studying there, became a Yale Law Journal editor. During his time at Yale, Alito and a classmate shared a prize granted to the most outstanding contributors to the journal: the Israel H. Peres Prize. He was also awarded the Harlan Fiske Stone Prize in Yale’s moot court competition in recognition of his oral arguments in that competition.
Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett
Barrett is a summa cum laude graduate of Notre Dame’s law school. She served as executive editor of the Notre Dame Law Review and was awarded the Hoynes Prize, which recognizes the top law student in a given J.D. class.
Associate Justice Stephen G. Breyer
Breyer is a magna cum laude Harvard Law graduate, and he was a member of the Harvard Law Review.
Associate Justice Neil M. Gorsuch
Gorsuch earned his J.D. from Harvard, and he attended law school on scholarship via the prestigious Harry S. Truman Scholarship.
Associate Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh
Kavanaugh got his J.D. at Yale.
Associate Justice Elena Kagan
Kagan is a magna cum laude Harvard Law graduate and held a supervisory editor position on the school’s law review.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr.
Roberts is a magna cum laude Harvard Law graduate and was a law review managing editor.
Associate Justice Sonia M. Sotomayor
Sotomayor earned her J.D. degree at Yale and was an editor of the school’s flagship law journal. In addition, she served as managing editor of the publication, Yale Studies in World Public Order.
Associate Justice Clarence Thomas
Thomas earned his J.D. from Yale.
Takeaways for Prospective Law Students
To learn where Supreme Court justices in earlier eras attended law school, you can refer to the map below. The map includes law schools throughout the U.S. that granted law degrees to individuals appointed to the Supreme Court after the year 1900. As this map shows, though many Supreme Court justices earned their law degrees from East Coast schools, there are also some who earned their law degrees from schools on the West Coast, in the South or in the Midwest.
Many of the schools on this map are extremely selective academic institutions. Johnson explains that alumni of top law schools tend to have an edge when competing for high-profile legal jobs, so he suggests that the most ambitious aspiring attorneys attempt to get into the best law school they can. Then, once they get into law school, they should aim to perform as well in their law school courses as is possible, he says.
However, Johnson emphasizes that a lot of luck is involved in the quest to become a Supreme Court justice. A potential justice is unlikely to be appointed by a president who disagrees with his or her politics or judicial philosophy, and by the time one presidential term ends, an aspiring justice may have missed his or her window of opportunity to become a justice, since presidents are mindful of judicial candidates’ ages when making appointment choices, Johnson explains.
So no matter how talented or driven an aspiring attorney is, there is no guarantee of an appointment to the highest court in the land. Becoming a Supreme Court justice is a lofty goal, and there are numerous factors outside a law school hopeful’s control.
“You can certainly help those odds by getting into the best law school possible, given who you are, what you can afford and all those other factors,” Johnson says.
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Update 11/05/20: This article has been updated with new information.