Amy Coney Barrett Breaks the Ivy League Cartel

Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court is significant because of her academic pedigree. She is a graduate of and former professor at Notre Dame. Notre Dame, of course, is a fine law school. It is ranked in the top 25 nationally and is held in high esteem by most every Catholic family in America. As we have seen during this week’s confirmation hearing she is whip smart, poised, and learned in the law. But she didn’t go to Harvard or Yale, lately the gatekeepers to a position on the Supreme Court. 

Of the current justices, every single one is a graduate of either Harvard or Yale. Among federal law clerks, a significant plurality comes from the top 10 or so law schools, with the most prestigious clerkships having an overrepresentation of Harvard and Yale graduates. This kind of pedigree ends up being a pathway to positions in the Department of Justice, government, elite law firms, and on the bench.

The Managerial Ruling Class

America does not have a landed elite, nor a warrior aristocracy, but rather the ruling class consists of carefully selected managers. The managers do not own the means of production, but rather control access to them. 

As Michael Anton has observed, 

our current overlords rest their claim to rule on a twofold and mutually reinforcing assertion of superiority. The first is expertise: their purportedly superior understanding of the complexities of modern life, grounded in their purportedly superior intelligence and elite education. These claims dovetail neatly with their moral claim, because to twenty-first-century America’s elite, virtue is less a matter of what one does or does not do than what one believes and does not believe. To be smart and educated is to hold the correct opinions; to hold the correct opinions is evidence of intelligence and education.

The Ivy League figures prominently in cultivating and controlling access to the managerial ruling class. As Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein noted in The Bell Curve, while intelligence used to be distributed more evenly between other colleges and the Ivy League, admissions standards changed in the 1950s. These schools moved away from their role as finishing schools for the hereditary WASP ruling class and became extremely efficient at channeling the brightest Americans their way. At the time of The Bell Curve’s publication, half of those with SAT scores in the top 1 percent went to only 12 universities, most of which are part of the Ivy League. In short, intellectual talent increasingly is marked by elite academic credentials. 

This would not be so alarming if these schools simply refined the highest academic talents to the highest levels. But in parallel with their increasingly efficient sorting for intelligence, the Ivy League has rejected not merely legacy admissions, but the legacy of Western Civilization, which gave birth to these institutions. At the same time, the parallel emphasis on diversity and social consciousness has crowded out white men and made religious and conservative Americans feel unwelcome. 

A Hostile Elite’s Training Ground

The insanity that one sees now in corporate America and among the political Left was “beta tested” on campus. The Ivy League, after all, infamously kicked ROTC units off campus to protest the Vietnam War and later maintained this policy to protest “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the position of the military on homosexuality during the Clinton years. Campus is also where increasingly strident identity politics and free speech restrictions became acceptable. Harvard’s president, Larry Summers, had to resign in 2006 after observing that fewer women may enter the sciences because of personal preference and aptitude. Such “real talk” is now verboten in our top universities.

The graduates of the Ivy League thus emerge with a highly regarded credential, a stellar network, but also with many common assumptions, habits, and expectations. Generally, this point of view consists of the aesthetic and political views of managerial class neoliberalism. The viewpoint is familiar from the pages of the Washington Post, law school faculty lounges, corporate human resource departments, and in the downstream media that takes their cues from the ruling class. 

Namely, it is pro-China, anti-Russia, pro-abortion, anti-gun, anti-Christian, believes America is racist but can get better because “diversity is our strength,” is OK with Silicon Valley monopolies and globalism, while skeptical of the less-hip industries of the country’s interior, and, of course, it is stridently anti-Trump. These views combine to support having the graduates of Ivy League schools at the top of the heap. In other words, a Harvard or Yale degree is not merely a marker of smarts, but of a point of view and ruling class membership and loyalty. 

The ideological indoctrination is most pronounced in the law schools. Starting in the 1920s, legal realism emerged on the scene. It taught that the old, naïvely formalistic views of law and legal education were a fiction. Legal realists argued that the stated reasons in legal opinions, with a heavy emphasis on precedent and fine linguistic distinctions, were largely a mask for economic and other unstated factors. 

Jerome Frank argued, after his own treatment with psychoanalysis, that the judge’s psychological state predominated as a decision-making factor. This view is often paraphrased as “decisions resting on what the judge had for breakfast that morning.” Oliver Wendell Holmes argued that law is simply “predicting what judges will do.” 

In the 1960s, this background cynicism about the law led to a view of legal education not as one grounded in the internal logic of the law itself, but of law as a tool for social change in a fundamentally unjust society. In this era, we find the proliferation of decisions that are grounded in “penumbras” and “emanations” promoting women’s rights, bussing, and other popular liberal causes. 

In the Casey decision, Justice Anthony Kennedy famously wrote, “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” This philosophical rumination is many things, but it’s not law. Kennedy, of course, was a graduate of Harvard Law School. 

Ironically, Christopher Columbus Langdell was the most significant force in the early rise of Harvard Law School. He taught law as a closed system, where analogic reasoning and the case method predominated. He also instituted the standard first year curriculum of contracts, property, torts, criminal law, and civil procedure. As a typically American self-made man not born of a prominent family, he adopted “blind grading” to address apparent favoritism among elite families. 

All of his influence, including the ideal of a meritocracy, slowly has been whittled away first by legal realism and later by the demands of diversity, supercharged by the activist view of law beginning in the 1960s. More recent legal innovations, including same sex marriage and interference with executive power over immigration, are buttressed by the steady flow of left-leaning scholarship from the Ivy League.

The Value of An Outsider 

Amy Coney Barret did not have the “benefit” of the Ivy League. She is a graduate of Rhodes College in Tennessee, and went on to attend Notre Dame Law on a full scholarship. She later undertook prestigious clerkships, including one with the late Justice Antonin Scalia.

Notre Dame, unlike the Ivy League, is not as steeped in the academic fads of the ruling class. For starters, unlike the rest of them, any flirtations with political liberalism are somewhat bound by the Catholic tradition. Among other things, this tradition recognizes the sanctity of life and marriage. 

Notre Dame also has several prominent academics who recognize the natural law; this tradition, stretching back to Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, is an antidote to the faddish trend of modern judicial activism. Legal realism provides no strong basis for any judge, Right or Left, to limit his expression of will and naked preference. After all, it claims that’s all any judge ever does, whether he acknowledges it or not.

For lawyers, the broader implications of the Catholic teaching of God as logos encourages a careful study of language as being an embodiment of the truth, not merely a tool for power or obfuscation. Catholics are also particularly sensitive to the importance of religious liberty, something less popular than ever among our elite. As historian Arthur Schlesinger said, anti-Catholicism is the “deepest held bias in the history of the American people” and the “anti-Semitism of intellectuals.” 

Notre Dame’s promotional literature states, “As an eminent law school at the heart of a great Catholic university, our view of legal education is informed and inspired by our religious tradition. It’s a tradition that spans the globe, embraces people of all backgrounds, and illustrates the possibilities of dialogue between reason and faith.” By contrast, Harvard Law School claims, “HLS students are not satisfied sitting in their dorm rooms and highlighting casebooks. They are looking to transform the world, one client—or one country—at a time.” Harvard wants its people in charge and without boundaries. In this, Harvard is succeeding.

The conservative movement, while it has objected to judicial activism and done yeoman’s work in cultivating originalist lawyers and judges through the Federalist Society, has done little to undermine the mystique of the Ivy League. It seems, as evidenced by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Neil Gorsuch, that even supposedly conservative graduates of the Ivy League are seduced and corrupted by the Ivy League’s intense and increasingly monotone political culture.

As with “woke capitalism,” the transformation of these important cultural institutions largely has been neglected by conservatives as being something outside the bounds of politics. As a consequence, they are given the same residual respect they earned in the 19th and 20th centuries, even though the basis of that respect—their former glory as citadels of learning and custodians of high culture—has been replaced by anti-civilizational subversion and decadence. 

Part of “draining the swamp” must be rooted in understanding its nature. It is chiefly a metaphor for a self-serving and hostile managerial overclass. The chief entry point to leadership in that class is Ivy League credentials. And the chief goal of the American Right should not be to whine about this state of affairs, beg for scraps, or otherwise to acknowledge this class and its institutions’ legitimacy. Instead, the Right must deny their legitimacy and champion alternative institutions, the Hillsdales and Notre Dames of the world, as well as their graduates. 

There is more to being a judge than mere intellect. There is  also judgment, humility, patriotism, ethics, and high commitment to the limited role of the judiciary. It is a conceit to believe that all of the greatest intellects are found only in a handful of institutions, which, because of their increasingly strident politics and aggressive regime of affirmative action, exclude those with the wrong background or wrong opinions.

As a justice, we should not be surprised that Amy Coney Barrett can teach us not only about football, as she joked, but, like Justice Scalia, she may teach us a humble respect for the written words of the Constitution.

About Christopher Roach

Christopher Roach is an adjunct fellow of the Center for American Greatness and an attorney in private practice based in Florida. He is a double graduate of the University of Chicago and has previously been published by The Federalist, Takimag, Chronicles, the Washington Legal Foundation, the Marine Corps Gazette, and the Orlando Sentinel. The views presented are solely his own.

Photo: Ruben Cueto

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6 responses to “Amy Coney Barrett Breaks the Ivy League Cartel”

  1. “At Notre Dame Law School, we see the law as more than just a profession.

    We encourage students to view the practice of law as a service to others, to explore the moral and ethical dimensions of the law, and to discover their unique roles in furthering the cause of justice.

    “As an eminent law school at the heart of a great Catholic university, our view of legal education is informed and inspired by our religious tradition. It’s a tradition that spans the globe, embraces people of all backgrounds, and illustrates the possibilities of dialogue between reason and faith.”


    “HLS combines genuine excellence and wonderful diversity on a scale that is unmatched anywhere. No law school has done more to shape law or legal education. The unique strength of our community is that it brings together, from around the world, so many exceptionally talented people of different backgrounds, lived experiences, interests, ambitions, approaches, methodologies, and perspectives.”

  2. The average Ivy League graduate is a lazy incompetent steeped in PC that will rest all their economic success on being granted, without merit, the top of a pyramid of harder working, better educated, and more talented workers form other universities and the school of hard knocks known as the street.

  3. Magnificent work, Christopher.

    I wonder what the Ivy League elite think of one of their alumni (Penn) in the White House.

  4. Having hired thousands of people, almost all college graduates and many with post-graduate degrees, I have hired many people from Ivy League schools, from elite colleges overseas, and from private and state colleges. In general, my conclusion is this. It is the norm of graduates of Harvard in particular to work the fact that they graduated from Harvard into the first five minutes of meeting anyone. In general, for most of them getting into and graduating Harvard was the fulfillment of their parent’s dreams and their highest accomplishment. Many were bright but not all. Very very few were hard workers. Many were networkers but few were substance creators or deep thinkers. People from other schools understood the need to prove themselves by hard work, successful performance, and developing excellent skills. People from Harvard expected success to be given to them. I can think of some exceptions – but few – maybe 10%, no more than that. In general, I found that the people who ended up being superior performers and went on in their careers to become major figures in my industry came from either quality state colleges across the US or from high quality private colleges from University of Chicago or Emory or Stanford or Tulane or MIT or from Cambridge or Oxford (my impression was that Cambridge in particular has generated some exceptionally smart, ambitious, driven, talented people). I cannot comment as well on other great or good EU universities since I do not have a concentrated number from any one of them just a spattering.

    I think that the fallacy of the Harvard is that the sense of having arrived it generated compared with the need to be an early bloomer to get in resulted in people who peaked in college and did not have the drive to move up except if they got into a position where their degree was a near automatic promotion (as happens in Academia). I have no doubt that the people who got in were talented but the aculturation and conformism required to survive and the self-satisfaction just cripples them.

  5. Outstanding analysis, supported by Thinker Prime’s empirical results.
    My experience is consistent with the essayist’s and Thinker Prime’s. It is based on 40 years of working closely with dozens of litigation lawyers, hiring and supervising numerous litigation lawyers in both government and private practice, and coordinating with hundreds of lawyers in dozens of cases in federal courts across the nation. A large majority of those lawyers were from Ivy League law schools, and many of the Ivy’s suffered the John Roberts’ defect of thinking himself the smartest person in the room and broadcasting his self-assessment. Those lawyers, like Roberts, usually disappointed.

  6. Really nice article, Mr. Roach.
    ACB was riveting in the hearings, meeting her adversaries eye-to-eye with steady gaze, superior intelligence, shrewdness, and calm assetiveness. She also appears to have wonderful moral fiber. My hunch is that she brought those talents and traits to Notre Dame rather than acquiring or reinforcing them there. Although I can’t speak from experience about the ND Law School, I was an undergrad there from 1966 to 1970. It was then, under the guise of anti-Vietnam War activism, that the radical left got it’s hooks into the university, especially in 1968 and years following. SDS had a chapter there; anti-war demonstrations took place there; and a priest burned a draft card during the offertory of an outdoor mass there. Only once that I can recall did the administration assert itself against the disruptive students. Otherwise the radicals were either tolerated or affirmed by university leaders. Anyone who has paid attention should realize that as of today, the left has captured the university.
    A few years ago, the administration stained Notre Dame’s legacy by inviting Obama to speak there and conferring an honorary degree on him, while pro-life demonstrators were arrested on campus. Another indicator of the political atmosphere at Notre Dame is that Pete Buttigieg’s father was a professor of English there from 1980-2017, and his signature accomplishment was translating and editing the three-volume English edition of Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, published from 1992 to 2007. Professor Buttigieg was a founding member and president of the International Gramsci Society, founded to facilitate communication between those who study Antonio Gramsci.
    Amy Coney Barrett’s meteoric ascension is, I believe, God-ordained and a result of her underpinning faith . However, as best I can tell from experience and observation, the notion that Notre Dame, at the ungraduate level, is a bastion of conservative thinking and traditional Catholic morality is a myth. They have sold out and embraced leftism. Maybe, over time, the school will return to the “Old Notre Dame” for which I still cheer.
    Go Irish!