Supreme Court Justices and the one type of Diversity everyone seems to ignore
Every Supreme Court Justice before 1967 was a white man. That’s the year Thurgood Marshall was appointed the first African American Justice. Still, no women were voted in until 1981, when Sandra Day O’Connor claimed her spot on the court.
Comparatively, today’s Supreme Court is impressively diverse.
- Three women – Ruth Bader Ginsburg (1993), Sonia Sotomayor (2009), and Elena Kagan (2010) – offer a sharp female perspective, absent until 1981.
- The addition of Clarence Thomas (1991) and Sonia Sotomayor (2009) provide much-needed representation for the African American and Hispanic communities, respectively.
- Three of the nine sitting Justices are Jewish, the remaining six Roman Catholic.
So what’s the problem? It seems that in only fifty-odd years we’ve transformed the highest court in the land from a homogeneous slice of white bread into a representative panel of dynamic cultures, experiences, and perspectives.
And yet – that’s not the whole story. Let’s start at the beginning.
The road to the Supreme Court…
…is surprisingly linear. Turns out, there’s a pretty direct route. Despite the diversity of race, religion, and gender, there exists little variety when it comes to education.
Of the nine sitting Justices, four attended Yale Law School and five attended Harvard Law School. This isn’t surprising in itself; there’s a reason Harvard and Yale are among the top schools in the world – they produce the best talent.
Yale: Clarence Thomas, Sonia Sotomayor, Samuel Alito, Brett Kavanaugh
Harvard: RBG, Elena Kagan, Neil Gorsuch, John Roberts, Stephen Breyer
But what happens when each Justice attends the same classes, receives the same education, learns the same methods?
Uniformity. Repetitiveness. The anti-thesis of diversity.
This can’t just be a coincidence.
Neil Gorsuch, President Trump’s 2017 addition to the court, went to the very same elite Washington prep school as Brett Kavanaugh, Trump’s 2018 nominee. Out of tens of thousands of schools across America, two Supreme Court nominees went to the same one.
The school should be lauded for its ability to mold and cultivate the leaders of tomorrow. It’s no easy feat corralling young, active men into channeling their energies toward education and skill development. This is an accomplishment in its own right. But should it be rewarded with two sitting Justice positions?
What can we learn from PhD students?
No respectable university will accept a Doctoral student who already completed their Undergraduate and Graduate degrees at the same school. They know – as we should – that learning from the same teachers and staying in the same environment breeds insularity, not inclusivity.
Universities want students who have broadened their horizons, who can draw on previous mentors and unique perspectives. What they don’t want is a system of repetition, whereby the same information is passed from professor to student, student to professor, over and over again.
Yet that’s the system out of which the current Supreme Court arises. Harvard Business Review clarifies, “intellectual diversity is more likely to be present when individuals on the team come from different disciplines, background, and areas of expertise.” In this case, the Justices come from the same discipline, same (intellectual and educational) background, same area of expertise. How are they to understand and represent the varied sentiments of 326 million non-Harvard, non-Yale graduates?
Why does this matter?
The law is the law, right? Why should you care whether the Supreme Court Justices attended the same two, four, eight schools?
The simple answer is, diversity is not limited to race, gender, or religion. As The Harvard Business Review aptly points out, “most discussions about diversity focus on demographic variables (e.g., gender, age, and race). However, the most interesting and influential aspects of diversity are psychological (e.g., personality, values, and abilities), also known as deep-level diversity.”
This ‘deep-level diversity’ is cultivated throughout your life, in the experiences you face and the perspectives you gain. It’s not gleaned from any single source – but school, and the seminal years it encompasses, certainly weighs disproportionately on your ways of thinking and reasoning.
What may earn you a top mark at Harvard may not be what makes you the best person to solve a certain problem or debate a specific set of issues. Two schools – and the ways of thinking, types of professors, and closed environments they represent – cannot be the end all be all of the United States legislative system.
To limit the pool of Justices to those who graduated from a few elite schools is to categorically reject diversity of thought – in a role where thinking, analyzing, and rationalizing is the entirety of the job description.
What can US companies take away from the Supreme Court Justices?
Authority bias has been well documented since the Milgram experiments. When a figure you respect – say, a professor – tells you something, you are likely to believe it (even if your brain is telling you not to). So when all nine Supreme Court Justices, who determine the fate of the country in many respects, learn the same axioms from the same professors in the same schools, they’re likely to hold the same (or similar) approaches.
The research is clear; diverse teams are more creative, productive, and lucrative. When people bring a diversity of thought to the table, problems are solved faster and smarter. What the Supreme Court gains in its elite alumni, it loses in distinctiveness of thought and approach.
This is not what you want in a team at your company. Lucky for the Supreme Court, it is not a for-profit company. As a business owner, you want as many smart, knowledgeable voices as possible – from a diversity of sources. Never forget; diversity is not only a matter of how you look or where you were born. It’s embedded in your perceptions, the institutions to which you subscribe, your approach to various problems. The way you think – and the people who taught you to think that way – is as important as any demographic marker.