U.S. Solicitor General Elena Kagan's nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court this week shows that the nation's high court is more accessible than ever to people who are not white males.
But it also demonstrates that the bench is less accessible than ever to those who did not attend Harvard or Yale.
If the Senate approves President Obama's top pick to replace retiring Justice John Paul Stevens, who turned 90 last month, then all nine of the nation's Supreme Court justices -- for the first time in American history -- will have attended one or the other of these two institutions.
Is this a bad thing?
As the usual partisan scrutiny surrounding newly announced nominations gets under way, this very debate is creeping into the framework of discussion.
To be sure, the politicians on Capitol Hill are predictably more preoccupied with sussing out Kagan's political leanings than discussing her alma mater.
But more and more scholars, journalists and other court watchers have noted the high court's striking lack of educational diversity.
"You're voiding a wide array of interesting and potentially brilliant nominees," Jonathan Turley, a law scholar at George Washington University, told McClatchy Newspapers last month. "It's like insisting you're only going to read books by two authors."
Meanwhile, there are a few court watchers who spotted this trend long before Kagan -- or even Sonia Sotomayor before her -- was nominated.
Among them is Bob Aragon, who has pursued his passion as a political humorist since retiring as the CEO of an office-furniture manufacturing company 10 years ago. As a humorist, Aragon comes up with concepts for cartoons, and Rodrigo Guerrero, a former cartoonist with the Colombian financial publication "Dinero," draws them up.
(Click here to view examples of their work.)
Aragon has had the issue of Supreme Court educational diversity in his sights ever since 2007. Back then, eight of the nine justices -- with Stevens, a graduate of Northwestern, being the lone exception -- attended the law schools of Harvard or Yale.
Then, the newest arrival was Justice John Roberts, a Harvard alum, who'd replaced Sandra Day O'Connor, a graduate of Stanford.
"If you say 'these people chosen are the most qualified,' aren't you saying that graduates of every other law school lack merit?" he said, speaking to HispanicBusiness.com this week. "It's an insult if you come from Duke, Stanford, Boalt or any of these other great law schools."
In 2007, Aragon and Guerrero created three political cartoons on the matter. One of them depicts the facade of the Supreme Court building. Above the pillars is a banner that reads, "Supreme Court of the United States (a wholly owned subsidiary of the Harvard and Yale law schools)."
Another shows lawyers having a conversation while walking up the steps of the building. One of them says, "FDR failed miserably when he tried to 'pack the Court,' but Harvard and Yale didn't!"
Aragon -- himself a holder of a bachelor's from UCLA and an MBA from Harvard Business Schoool -- is careful to say that he supports Kagan's nomination.
"Her credentials are impeccable," he said.
But he fears the lack of educational diversity on the bench shuts out the perspective of people from other university cultures.
Many of the high court's most influential justices came from schools other than Harvard and Yale. They include Justice Earl Warren, who in 1954 famously corralled a 9-0 vote on the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case, which outlawed state-sanctioned segregation in schools. Warren, once the governor of California, was a graduate of UC-Berkeley's law school, known as Boalt Hall.
Aragon said his goal in all of this is to help create a climate "more favorable to other candidates of other schools."
He notes that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is 77 years old, and once she retires, the court will likely remain unchanged for a long time.
Ginsburg, the first Jewish female justice, also attended Harvard Law School, but transferred to Columbia Law School in the 1950s when her husband took a job in New York City.
Some scholars say the preponderance of Harvard and Yale alums on the high court is no big deal.
"One would expect the top legal minds of the country to have gone to the very best law schools," Sheldon Goldman, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, told McClatchy.
But critics such as Aragon say the current dynamic narrows the court's intellectual perspective.
"Every school has its ethos, its values, its culture," Aragon said. "If you limit yourself to two institutions, you're denying yourself access to legal talent that is spawned elsewhere."
Over the years, Aragon has been sounding the alarm on the educational diversity issue, but to little response.
Aragon and Guerrero have published cartoons in publications such as "The Sun," a U.S. tabloid; "Boys Life," a magazine published by the Boy Scouts and "The Mensa Bulletin," for members of American Mensa.
But queries to publish their Supreme Court cartoons in publications such as the New Yorker and The New York Times have thus far not been accepted.
Saturday, December 21, 2013