Where Supreme Court Justices Earned Law Degrees

Now that the U.S. Senate has confirmed Ketanji Brown Jackson’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court, she will become the first African American woman to serve as a justice on the nation’s highest court.

Once she replaces retiring associate justice Stephen G. Breyer, whom she worked for as a Supreme Court clerk, Jackson will also be the only currently sitting justice that has experience as either a trial court judge or a defense attorney. And while her background is unique, the educational journey Jackson took to the high court was somewhat traditional — she earned both her undergraduate and law degrees from Harvard University in Massachusetts, a school that has produced many Supreme Court justices.

For about a decade, each of the nine seats on the Supreme Court was occupied by someone who graduated from an Ivy League law school. That changed two years ago when Amy Coney Barrett, an alumna of University of Notre Dame Law School in Indiana, was sworn in.

[See: 10 Law Schools Whose Grads Get Judicial Clerkships.]

Certain Ivy law schools have a track record of producing Supreme Court justices. Four of the eight justices appointed so far in the 21st century earned law degrees from Harvard, and another three graduated from Yale Law School.

Timothy R. Johnson, a professor of political science and law at the University of Minnesota, says 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.

Ben Widlanski, a partner with the Kozyak Tropin & Throckmorton law firm in Florida, says that aspiring Supreme Court justices may be choosing to go to prestigious law schools to optimize their odds of becoming a federal judge.

[Read: Prepare for a Judicial Career in Law School.]

“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.

U.S. News looked into where Supreme Court justices who were appointed in the 20th or 21st century earned their law degrees, and some patterns emerged.

Among the 60 justices who were appointed in the 20th and 21st centuries, 40 received law degrees from law schools that are ranked among the top 25 — including ties — in the U.S. News 2023 Best Law Schools rankings.

Nine of the remaining justices earned a law degree from a lower-ranked law school, including Robert Jackson, who was initially denied his law degree because he was so young when he attended law school. One justice, Frederick Moore Vinson, earned his law degree from a law school that no longer exists. The other 10 justices did not have law degrees. Among those, six attended law school without receiving a degree and four did not attend law school at all.

[Read: Choose the Right Law School for an Appellate Law Career.]

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 1900s 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.

Here is a summary of the legal education of the sitting Supreme Court justices. 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 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.

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 Ketanji Brown Jackson

Jackson is a cum laude Harvard Law graduate and was an editor at the Harvard Law Review.

Associate Justice Neil M. Gorsuch

Gorsuch is a cum laude Harvard Law graduate and attended law school on scholarship via the prestigious Harry S. Truman Scholarship.

Associate Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh

Kavanaugh got his J.D. at Yale and was a member of the Yale Law Journal, serving as a notes editor.

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.

Many of the schools on this map are extremely selective academic institutions. Every Supreme Court justice appointed since 1970 has had some connection to a highly ranked law school.

“Even when we get diversity in gender and race and ethnicity, it really does beg the question: If everybody comes from the same three or four law schools, can they legitimately make decisions that will affect all of us, that we can believe are good decisions?” says Johnson.

Alumni of top law programs tend to have an edge when competing for high-profile, entry-level legal jobs, including federal judicial clerkships, which are often viewed as stepping stones into an influential judicial career.

That said, a degree from a top law school in and of itself is not enough to make someone a contender for the Supreme Court, since candidates for this role generally have impressive legal work experience as well.

Luck is also 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, since presidents are mindful of judicial candidates’ ages when making appointment choices, Johnson says.

Becoming a Supreme Court justice is a lofty goal, and regardless of a candidate’s talent and drive, there are many 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.

Searching for a law school? Get our complete rankings of Best Law Schools.

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Where Supreme Court Justices Earned Law Degrees originally appeared on usnews.com

Update 04/07/22: This article has been updated with new information.

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