Friday, April 23, 2010

Next justice could be an alumna of UT-Austin

As the White House continues to scrub the list of potential Supreme Court nominees, punditry has focused on the issue of pedigree diversity, that is, the case for a nominee outside the usual coterie of elite East Coast law schools and universities. “Pressure mounts,” reads a recent blog headline, “to avoid the Ivy League.” The president is urged by Fox News commentator Bill Kristol to stand up against Ivy League law schools, which “have done a lot of damage.” Down with Harvard! Stop Yale before it kills again!

The apparent assumption is that someone who has been educated in an environment closer to the real world will bring new perspectives and refreshing common sense to a court both intellectually cloistered and Northeastern in sensibilities. Front-runner Diane Wood, a judge on the appellate court in Chicago and a proud graduate of the University of Texas at Austin (undergraduate and law school), fits this bill; advocates of pedigree affirmative action urge a bump for that reason.

At the level of pure self-interest, I will cop to mixed feelings in this matter. As a law teacher at UT, and also a graduate of both the Harvard Law School and a large state university in Southern California, I have alumni sympathies that run the gamut. More to the point, however, there is precious little to the notion that the experience gained from interactions with colleagues and teachers at the flagship public university in Texas is different in significant ways from what goes on up north.

Students at all our nation's fine law schools come from a wide swath of educated American society. Aspiring lawyers with fancy undergraduate credentials sit cheek to jowl (as we say in these parts) with working-class young people whose life experience is significantly different. Happily, professional schools have become more eclectic in attitude and background over the decades. To be sure, the educational setting in which law students begin their journey toward their chosen profession matters to their professional outlook, their social sympathies, perhaps also to their political ideologies. And, truth be told, we professors influence these future lawyers by inculcating values and promoting our own ideas about justice, professional responsibility and the rule of law. Fortunately for the younger version of Judge Wood and for the Diane Wood of today, a good law school is a big tent, a place of many perspectives and points of view. There is not an Ivy League way of training lawyers; there is not a wholly different way in the heartland or on the West Coast.

What Diane Wood and her classmates surely received from UT is just what other Ivy Leaguer front-runners received — a first-class preparation for the hard work of lawyering in a complex, diverse society. To be bothered about where one went to college or, worse yet, to urge a thumb on the scale for “mere” Texans because presumably those East Coast intellectuals need some plain talk from plain folks is to engage in just the sort of prejudice that years of attention to equal treatment and scrutiny of individual talents, not group membership, was meant to avoid.

That all said, diversity in the Supreme Court matters. A Supreme Court of the United States will, one hopes, reflect the diverse experience of a complex nation. We might expect President Barack Obama to consider able lawyers who come from elsewhere than the federal court of appeals; and, yes, we might want to see someone from out west. Yet we would do well to discount pedigree diversity and instead focus on the ways in which the professional experience and demonstrable actions of these wonderfully talented candidates help enrich the court's perspectives and worldview. That Harvard can produce jurists of uncommon ability with a common touch is a testament to the democratization and diversity of modern legal education. But, then again, the University of Texas can do the same, and that is good news for our own Diane Wood who, if appointed, will be running with the big dogs.

Rodriguez teaches constitutional law and administrative law at the University of Texas School of Law. He also is a fellow in law and public policy at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University.


No comments:

Post a Comment

Nuestras Voces welcomes passionate and respectful commentary. The administrator will delete comments that insult or threaten other blog participants or that fall outside of the bounds of respectful discourse. Trolling, spamming and other annoying behaviors are strictly prohibited. In the rare event that your post has been deleted, do not post comments regarding that fact. Peace!