Op-ed: The law’s country club

  • By Bob Franken
  • Monday, July 16, 2018 2:47pm
  • Opinion

Is it possible that only Ivy League law schools produce attorneys who have what it takes to climb to the top of this country’s jurisprudence heap? This heap’s pinnacle, of course, is the U.S. Supreme Court. Apparently, we have evolved to a nation where the SCOTUS ivory tower is exclusively the Ivy tower. Even President Donald Trump. the rabble rouser in chief, is said to have factored in Brett Kavanaugh’s Yale pedigree when he chose him for another new haven. Assuming the Senate complies, he will cluster with the Supremes: five Harvard, three other Yalies and one (Ginsburg) who attended Harvard Law before switching to Columbia. Kavanaugh would replace Anthony Kennedy, who is a Harvard alum, so Yale would pick up an elite seat. Isn’t diversity great?

But are those universities so inherently superior, particularly when you consider the fact that Trump graduated from one (Penn), and George W. Bush got his degree from Yale? Maybe sometimes it just doesn’t take. But is it that or is it that the Ivies are overrated, or that some of the others are underrated?

Even if you set aside Stanford, which many describe as just a West Coast Ivy, with Sandra Day O’Connor and William Rehnquist as alums, what about the University of Michigan or Virginia, not to mention Georgetown? They are among many with sterling programs. And let’s not overlook Ohio State, Arizona State and Deep State (I just wanted to make sure you were paying attention). Those programs graduate scads of brilliant lawyers. But they’re still not regarded as the super-elites. Maybe that’s Ivy League self-serving PR. Maybe the critics are correct when they charge that the most important courses at any of them include Hubris, Entitlement and, most important of all, Networking. Look no further than the Supremes.

I remember sitting in a green room with a former news type who had escaped the frenetic riffraff world of reporting, and now was enjoying the leisurely, elegant life as an academic at Princeton. What classes he taught obviously had to do with journalism. Making small talk, I insincerely commented that he must enjoy the stimulation of interacting with and molding fresh student minds, particularly the brightest of the bright, in an Ivy league school.

“Not really,” he snapped, “Most of these kids just got into Princeton because they did what they’re told.” He meant that they grew up excelling at sucking up to all their teachers; not making waves, and getting high grades as a result. Either that or they were admitted because the parents were willing to make a huge contribution to the already heavily endowed institution of higher learning.

What can get lost in all this is the common touch and common sense. When it is automatically assumed that brilliance can shine only overhead, we fail to illuminate the worthy experience of those who labor below. Life at the top is insular.

One could make a similar argument about the exclusive private schools in this country, the primary and secondary ones where the children of privilege get their formative educations. There are at least two problems: their inherent snobbery, along with the neglect and deterioration of public schools, particularly in cities where you have concentrations of the poor. Since well-off and influential parents can afford the tuition charged by these upper-crust bastions, they don’t have to wield their power and knowledge of the levers that need pulling on behalf of public schools — something they might feel compelled to do if their offspring attended. Instead, they simply turn to their scholastic country clubs, where the closest brush the kiddies will have with diversity is the janitors.

What we have created in this nation is a nearly impenetrable caste system. At the Supreme Court, society’s rules are ultimately interpreted by justices who were indoctrinated by their education to protect the advantages of the ruling class. Yes, a number of them are progressive, a dwindling number. But their Ivy League advantage is really the disadvantage of intellectual inbreeding.

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