Ivy Honors and the Justices

Honorary degrees are the highest symbol of recognition that universities can bestow. And the Ivy League retains the greatest reputation for excellence in American higher education. Thus, it is of more than a little interest that these institutions find excellence overwhelmingly in justices on the left of the judiciary.

Of the fourteen honorary degrees bestowed by Ivy League institutions to living Supreme Court justices twelve went to those on the left of the Court. Justice Ginsburg is the champ: she has an honorary degree from every Ivy League university except Cornell and Cornell does not award honorary degrees. And she is by some political science measures the farthest to the left on the Court. Justice Sonia Sotomayor has two such degrees (Princeton, Yale) and Stephen Breyer, John Paul Stevens and David Souter have one each (Penn, Princeton, and Harvard respectively). While I am not knowledgeable about all foreign judges, the two I did recognize from the Ivy lists, getting two honorary degrees each, were Albie Sachs of South Africa and Aharon Barak of Israel—two of the most famous left-leaning jurists from abroad. Indeed, some of Barak’s opinions make those of William O. Douglas seem modest and lawful.

Against all this celebration of left-liberalism, Brown and Yale did give honorary degrees to Sandra Day O’Connor, the swing justice of her day and a moderate conservative. But no Ivy League University has ever awarded such a degree to anyone sitting now on the right of the Court. What makes this performance even more obviously ideologically driven is that these academic institutions have neglected the one who has had the most academic influence—Antonin Scalia. Regardless of whether one agrees with him, his textualism in statutory interpretation and originalism in constitutional interpretation have been driving the academic debate. And Chief Justice John Roberts is widely regarded as a very able Chief—the first among equals—as well as perhaps the best oral advocate of his generation.    There is also a direct head to head comparison of justices: Samuel Alito graduated from the same college and law school as Sonia Sotomayor and has been on the Court longer, but both schools have honored her and not him with honorary degrees.

The differential treatment of justices on the right and left of the Court  provides more evidence of the high double standards of higher education.  It also offers some indirect evidence that professors on the right likely suffer discrimination in the elite legal academy. After all, the faculty and the administration of the law schools likely have some influence on who gets honorary degrees. And no doubt there is likely to be a similar message in many classrooms about which justices are worthy of emulation.

John O. McGinnis

John O. McGinnis is the George C. Dix Professor in Constitutional Law at Northwestern University. His book Accelerating Democracy was published by Princeton University Press in 2012. McGinnis is also the coauthor with Mike Rappaport of Originalism and the Good Constitution published by Harvard University Press in 2013 . He is a graduate of Harvard College, Balliol College, Oxford, and Harvard Law School. He has published in leading law reviews, including the Harvard, Chicago, and Stanford Law Reviews and the Yale Law Journal, and in journals of opinion, including National Affairs and National Review.

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  1. Brett Champion says

    Though I rarely agree with Ginsburg’s opinions, one thing positive that I can say about her is that her opinions are well written and logically consistent. If you accept the premises upon which her opinions are based (i.e., her legal world view), then she is an exemplar of what a judge should be, and a Supreme Court justice in particular.

    In fact, of the Supreme Court justices who I have read at least five opinions from, I would say that she has the best written opinions. Unlike the other lefties on the bench, who often seem to be making it up as they go along, Ginsburg’s opinions evince a judge who has a definite legal viewpoint.

  2. Brett Champion says

    Let me also add: Good for Cornell.

    Handing out honorary degrees to people like judges and politicians seems a bit too self-serving to me, especially when they are still in a position of power. If universities are going to award honorary degrees, they should award them to people in non-political fields.

  3. Jon says

    Justice Ginsburg has a bachelor’s degree from Cornell, so she actually does have degrees (honorary and real) from all eight Ivies.


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