Law School Rankings and Judicial Liberalism
posted by Corey Yung
A common attack on elite law schools is that they are filled with with a bunch of loony liberals who hope to indoctrinate their law students with their left-wing beliefs. To my surprise, for federal appellate judges, there seems to be a kernel of truth to that belief. The Ideology Scores of the 138 judges with sufficient sample size that I studied had a statistically significant relationship with the ranking of the law school attended according to the US News and World Report Rankings from 2010. While the flaws in the USNWR rankings are well-documented, they are simply the only ranking available for all of the law schools in my sample. The figure below indicates that for each ten ranks lower in USNWR, a judge’s Ideology Score increased in a conservative direction by 27.9 points (on a scale of -100 to 100).Someone might argue that Democratic Presidents (or really just President Clinton) valued law school credentials more than Republican Presidents. After all, it was President George W. Bush who had the audacity to nominate a SMU School of Law graduate to the Supreme Court. However, the observed correlation existed both for appointees of Democratic and Republican Presidents.One possible explanation for this correlation is geography. For example, recent Supreme Court short-lister Judge Sidney Thomas is a University of Montana School of Law graduate. Not suprisingly, he sits in Montana. Particularly for graduates of lower ranked schools, there is a strong tendency that they sit in the state where they attended law school. Because some circuits have a higher concentration of lower ranked schools than others, it might be expected that certain circuits would also have more lower ranked law school graduates. If those same circuits were also largely conservative, then the correlation might be only the product of geography. Notably, however, the circuit with the highest average ranking for law school attended is the Sixth Circuit even though it has just a couple highly ranked law schools within its borders. Regardless, running the regression analysis while controlling for circuit still yielded a statistically significant relationship in the same direction as the original correlation. There was also no statistically significant relationship between the circuit where a judge sat and the ranking of the law school attended. Further, there was no statistically significant relationship between whether the law school attended was private or public and judicial ideology. Importantly, this does not mean their is a causative effect between going to Yale and being a liberal judge. However, ruling out the geographic and political appointment explanations does make it worthy of note. I would be very interested if any commenters have an alternative explanation for the results.