Law School Rankings and Judicial Liberalism

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.

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8 Responses

  1. Jiggy Pops says:

    Smarter people are just more liberal.

  2. Random 1L says:

    Correlation Causation.

    As the poster above pointed out, the result could simply mean that people who are already liberal tend to go to better law schools. The posited explanation is only one of several possible.

  3. MNO says:

    Both graphs seem to have a ton from elite schools, the conservatives just seem to have a few more low-ranked data points. Isolating that seems to be the key.

    I know you found no relationship between private vs. public and ideology, but what about religious vs. non-religious? I suspect a good many more conservatives went to religious schools, and even though Notre Dame and BYU, among others, are ranked fairly well, they’d both (I think) be below most of the data points on your chart (at least for the more liberal side). And that says nothing about the other, much lower-ranked schools that might contribute more on the conservative side.

    (Of course, you then have to decide, HOW religious counts? I’d venture to say that an SMU [Southern METHODIST Univ.] is more like a typical private school than it is like BYU or Notre Dame, but I don’t know how you quantify that…)

  4. JD says:

    “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, their seems to be a kernel of truth to that belief.”

    LOL! A kernel of truth? The loony part is tendentious, but do you really have any doubt about the rest of this?

  5. Corey Yung says:

    Hi Jiggy Pops and Random 1L,

    Those observations do not offer an explanation of why Republican appointees also exhibit the same pattern. Even if it were true that liberals dominate the ranks of higher ranked law schools, the population of federal appellate judges is a very small non-random sample of the graduates of those schools. The question is why appointees of Republican Presidents from those schools tend to be more liberal than expected (assuming ideology was an important factor in nomination).


    That is a very good thought. It is difficult to make too much of an assessment about religious schools (especially if we limit it only to Notre Dame and BYU) because there were only 138 judges involved in the findings. Still, I did go back through the data and found that there were no Notre Dame law grads in the 138 judges and only one from BYU (who had a score of 30.3). Without more data, I can’t really say anything helpful about those two schools.


    That’s an empirical question and if you have data to support it, I would be interested in seeing it. Truthfully, though, I’m skeptical of the claim that elite law schools are filled with professors “who hope to indoctrinate their law students with their left-wing beliefs.”


  6. Random 1L says:

    So why do you think is that Republican nominees that go to better law schools tend to be more liberal than those who don’t? I mean, it seems a little (to say the least) counterintuitive to presuppose that these nominees were indoctrinated to be liberals at, say, Harvard, yet managed to escape that influence enough to be considered solid enough conservatives to be nominated to the bench by Republicans for the time immediately AFTER their graduation until their nomination. Then, when they get nominated to the bench, after a period of several years, the indoctrination suddenly takes hold? It doesn’t hold water.

  7. Corey Yung says:

    Hi Random 1L,

    I can think of a variety of explanations that are consistent with the data which I think are not inherently counterintuitive. For example, it might be that Republican Presidents were so seduced by Ivy League credentials (possibly as part of ensuring Senate confirmation) that they did not realize the judges were more moderate than they would have hoped. Or it might be that those Presidents were willing to expend more capital on judges with lesser resumes precisely because they were stronger ideologues. In either scenario, the Democratic Presidents might have simply made errors in judgment with non-Ivy League nominees.

    Assuming the law school environment itself had some effect, I think there might be something about the focus on theory at higher ranked schools which might be noteworthy. The focus on legal practice at lower-ranked schools might train “better” advocates who are ready to hit the ground running. However, the theoretical focus of higher-ranked schools might expose the graduates to a greater range of legal concepts and arguments. That breadth of knowledge might not kick in until those persons are on the bench when they are out of their practice speciality. In such situations, those judges might be more prone to adopt a liberal argument that they heard from their law school professors.

    There might also be some connection between what landed someone in an elite school and later led to their nomination. After all, as a federal judge once told me (and I am sure has been said before), the only qualification to be a federal judge is to know a Senator. Being in that select circle might also relate to factors that led to attendance at a top school.

    It is also important to note that there is probably a difference between judicial liberalism and general political liberalism. Whereas being pro-choice, pro-welfare, and anti-war might make a person a Democrat, those issues might never come before a judge. Instead, views on criminal justice will account for 40-50% of his or her decisions. In such situations, the less salient ideological views are the ones that actually decide cases (when ideology is relevant).

    Ultimately, I don’t know if any of those explanations is at least partially right. As I noted at the outset, I’m interested in hearing a range of possible readings of the data and findings.


  8. Ted says:

    In increasing order of likelihood:

    1) The elite law schools are indeed disproportionately liberal. But so are the non-elite law schools. Plenty of law schools ranked between 26 and 126 indoctrinate their students. Even a Chicago or a GMU Law will graduate more liberal students than conservatives; even a Chicago has more liberal faculty members than conservative ones. Harvard was able to show its bona fides to conservative law students simply by hiring all of three conservative law professors.

    2) Conservative law students may choose to attend lower-ranking law schools. In my own data point, I turned down Yale (1) and Harvard (2) to attend Chicago (3 at the time), in part because of the “loony liberal” problem. Of course, no one’s appointing me to anything.

    3) I think it comes down to the fact that the law profession in general is overwhelmingly liberal. Thus, to the extent an executive-branch member wants to appoint a liberal, rather than a conservative, lawyer to a position, he or she has a “deeper bench” to work from: there are simply going to be many more Yale and Harvard Law graduates competing for the liberal spot than for the conservative spot, even before you account for the fact that conservatives with top credentials are more likely to prefer to remain in the private sector. A Democratic president could refuse to appoint anyone who didn’t go to a top-six law school (if they were willing to stand up to the charges of elitism); a Republican president isn’t going to have that option.

    NB that a number of district-court appointments are de facto apolitical because of deference to home-state senators, so you’ll occasionally see Republicans appointing center-left Democrats to the bench. Less often the opposite.