John Paul Stevens and Diversity on the High Court

In the artfully balanced world of the Supreme Court, the liberal versus conservative divide takes precedence when one justice leaves and another is cued up to fill the slot. John Paul Stevens timed his resignation to insure that President Obama could replace him with another liberal-minded jurist. But there is another less talked-about balance that Stevens brought to the court, and that’s his Midwestern upbringing and education. Like so many reporters researching the Internet to learn more about Stevens in the wake of his announced resignation, I found a post by a senior at Northwestern University pointing out that Stevens attended the University of Chicago and Northwestern Law School making him the only one of the nine sitting justices who got his law degree from a non-East Coast Ivy League law school. By this student’s account, four current justices received their law degrees from Harvard, three from Yale and one from Columbia—and that’s because Ruth Bader Ginsburg transferred to Columbia from Harvard.

Maybe this is just a matter of trivia, but when you only have nine slots to fill on the highest court in the land, and they’re lifetime appointments, it’s worth considering educational diversity and the varying life experience that getting a degree from one of the other many fine law schools in the country might bring to the court. And while we’re taking stock of the court’s diversity, it’s worth noting that Stevens is the only Protestant on the court. As a country we’ve successfully overcome so many hurdles having to do with religion, race, and ethnicity that when we talk about the composition of the court, it’s right versus left, and little else.