A new study on judges’ and lawyers’ political preferences may hold important implications for law students who want to sit on the bench.
Lawyers are typically more liberal than the population at large, while judges are typically more conservative than other lawyers, according to the study, authored by Harvard Kennedy School professor Maya Sen and Stanford professor Adam Bonica and released last month. The study, which examined data on almost 400,000 lawyers and judges in the United States, further found that higher courts are more conservative and politicized. This discrepancy, Sen and Bonica found, exists because Republicans “strategically prioritize higher courts” when it comes to judicial appointments.
Sen told the News that this politicization of the bench is significant for current law students with judicial aspirations.
“If you want to be a judge, going to a top-ranked law school and signaling that you are conservative is a good way to go,” she said. “There are fewer conservatives at these law schools, and so it would make you an attractive candidate.”
Sen added that the study found that among law school graduates, there is a positive correlation between being conservative and becoming a judge.
However, the definition of conservative varies widely among law schools. The study claims that students at elite law schools, such as Yale Law School, are more liberal, with UC-Berkeley Law producing the most left-leaning lawyers in the nation. Meanwhile, judges coming out of these law schools are simply more right-leaning than those who tend to become lawyers.
Bonica said that although the study does not provide a data set that shows future judges are more conservative than future lawyers while they are still in law school, as the study focused on one year of data, prior research in the field strongly suggests that this is also the case.
“Generally from what we know about political preferences, they are pretty well formed by the time someone is out of their undergraduate institution, especially if they go on to be politically active,” Bonica said.
But Ben Picozzi LAW ’16 said it is difficult to assess whether prospective judges at the law school are more conservative than their counterparts who do not have judicial aspirations. He said that because so much of a judicial career is determined by outside forces, most law students at Yale are not already planning on being judges. In contrast, aspiring lawyers tend to have already drafted their career path in that direction.
Similarly, Daniel Herz-Roiphe LAW ’15 said he does not think many students at Yale Law School aim to sit on the bench because entering the federal judiciary relies on an external appointment, which law school graduates cannot themselves determine. However, he said he does not think that all law students who may be interested in sitting on the bench are ideologically conservative.
“Politicians are pretty evenly split and politicians appoint federal judges,” he said. “So, it would make sense that the political composition of the judiciary would reflect the political composition of the Senate and the White House.”
However, Herz-Roiphe said he thinks more conservatives are on the bench as opposed to the bar because the legal profession caters to more liberal-minded activities.
Asaf Lubin LAW ’15 said that taking on the role of the judge inherently warrants a more conservative outlook.
“Overall once you take on the role of judge, you take upon yourself more of a public figure, and even if you used to be more of an open spirit you take on a more civil role,” Lubin said. “It is not necessarily becoming a conservative but taking your opinions a notch down.”
Still, Lubin added that this conservatism does not contradict activism on the bench. In particular, he cited Aharon Barak — the former president of the Israeli Supreme Court and a visiting professor at the law school — as a particularly active judge.
There are 874 federal, Article III judgeships in the United States.