New Study Adds to the Debate Surrounding Ideological Divides and the United States Supreme Court

Democrats Republicans boxingThe New York Times published an article detailing the results of a new study regarding the career paths of former United States Supreme Court clerks.  The study finds that “former clerks have started to take jobs that reflect the ideologies of the justices for whom they worked.”  The data collected show a shift in the career paths of clerks hired from 1990 and on:

 Until about 1990, the study shows, there was no particular correlation between a justice’s ideological leanings and what his or her clerks did with their lives.

 Clerks from conservative chambers are now less likely to teach. If they do, they are more likely to join the faculties of conservative and religious law schools. Republican administrations are now much more likely to hire clerks from conservative chambers, and Democratic administrations from liberal ones. Even law firm hiring splits along ideological lines.

It is no secret that the justices have shown a greater propensity to hire clerks that share their ideological beliefs (as the article and previous studies explain).  Yet this newest study, which focuses on life post-clerkship, has alarmed those already worried about the strong ideological splits on the Court.  Says law professor William Nelson of NYU, “It’s cause for concern mainly because it’s a further piece of evidence of the polarization of the court.”In fact, in response to the data showing that former clerks end up at law firms, government agencies, and law schools that match their justice’s ideological views, the study’s authors state that:

At least some readers may be concerned that these distinct tracks may tend to reify political polarization on and surrounding the Court. More specifically, they may postulate that clerks who arrive at the Supreme Court with sharply divergent ideological views, after having their views confirmed by their experience in chambers, will go on to the [sic] government, law firms, and law schools, where they will preach their divergent ideologies and further divide their students, their associates, and the public at large, thereby reinforcing ideological dissonance and stridency.

I am not sure whether I accept the concerns listed in the above block quote as supported by the data.  Perhaps this is an oversimplification of the problem presented, but it seems that the conclusion drawn from the results of this study is that each ideological wing of the Court is pumping out an army of likeminded former clerks, who in turn collectively work to promote political goals, which furthers the view that the Court has become a superlegislature.  I think that such a conclusion requires a belief that former clerks, law firm and law school hiring committees, and government agencies intend to coalesce based on political beliefs.  While such an intent may be inferred on the part of federal agencies (based on hiring patterns and the party controlling the executive branch), I do not think such an intent is otherwise obvious from the current employment of former clerks.  I would want to see data regarding the number of “liberal” clerks that applied for “conservative” job openings and vice versa, and the extent to which opposite minded applicants have been turned down for such openings, before considering such a conclusion. 

I do believe, however, that this study further underscores the concerns raised by reports that justices hire likeminded clerks.  No matter whether the polarization of the Court is dangerous, the lack of a dissenting voice among a justice’s clerks is troubling.  If a “contrarian” clerk can lead a justice to more carefully consider all angles of a legal dispute, the decision-making process of the Court can only improve.  And such debate within a single chamber, in addition to the debate that occurs between chambers, could very well narrow the ideological gap so maligned by legal academics.

Ultimately, the study, like those preceding it, raises more questions about the rise of political debate surrounding the Court, and the implications of such debate.

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