The death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia last month has sparked speculation at the Yale Law School — which has produced 10 former justices — about who will succeed the conservative justice.
Local and national political publications said the list of possible Supreme Court nominees includes Cory Booker LAW ’97 and current Yale Law professor Harold Koh. At a panel discussion at the Law School Monday night, Yale Law professors who had previously worked with Scalia said the late justice, who attended Harvard Law School, was dedicated to the law and leaves big shoes to fill. But President Obama’s nomination could shift the court away from the Ivy League, and Scalia has even previously criticized the court for consisting of nine lawyers who studied at either Harvard or Yale Law School.
At the Monday evening panel, the Yale Federalist Society hosted a discussion between three law professors on Justice Scalia’s legacy Monday evening. The professors took turns giving anecdotes about Scalia and commenting on how he transformed the Supreme Court into a place for dynamic and intense legal debate.
“He was a law professor, he was a New Yorker and he was Italian,” said Boston University Law professor Gary Lawson LAW ’83, who worked for Scalia as a clerk. “We shared a passion for getting the law right, and that was really all that he cared about more than anything else.”
Yale Law Professor William Eskridge LAW ’78 called Scalia the “conscience of the Supreme Court,” adding that Scalia did not tolerate political compromises or flimsy arguments from his fellow justices.
Lawson, Eskridge and Edward Whelan — a lawyer, the president of a conservative think tank and the third panelist — credited Scalia with influencing their own legal careers. Lawson, who attended Yale Law School in the early 1980s, said Scalia’s dissents on the court were often controversial, but ultimately changed the world of constitutional law by inspiring debate instead of defaulting to party precedent.
“Going to Harvard or Yale increases the likelihood of other measures of professional success, such as clerkships and academic appointments,” Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of University of California, Irvine Law School, and who was not at the panel, told the News.
While the current state of judicial appointments favors Ivy League schools, law professors interviewed said places like Yale and Harvard should not necessarily be the only breeding grounds for potential Supreme Court appointees.
In an interview with the News, Yale Law professor Akhil Amar ’80 LAW ’84 cited passages from “The Law of the Land,” his seminal work on constitutional law, that deal specifically with the legal education of Supreme Court justices past, present and future. The passages point out that many current justices both attended and taught as law professors at America’s elite law schools. But Amar questioned whether picking justices from a small range of elite schools was prudent.
“Don’t get me wrong, I love Yale Law School,” Amar said. “It would probably be good for me personally if all would-be justices had to take my courses and learn constitutional law the way I think it should be taught. But would this be good for America?”
In his book, Amar also questions whether there is any value in a “broader and more diverse pattern of legal mentorship,” though he does not ultimately reach a conclusion.
But despite being a member of an circle of legal elites, Scalia was often portrayed in the national media as an outsider to the East Coast Ivy League world of law, as evinced by the way he criticized the lack of educational and geographical diversity on the court. A Feb. 15 article from The New York Times speculated that Scalia would have wanted Obama to “find someone who did not go to law school at Harvard or Yale.”
“The predominant attitude of tall-building lawyers with respect to the questions presented in these cases is suggested by the fact that the American Bar Association deemed it in accord with the wishes of its members to file a brief in support of the petitioners,” Scalia wrote in a 2015 dissenting opinion.
Scalia died on Feb. 13 in Texas in his sleep after a day of quail hunting.