Is the Supreme Court becoming detached from the practice of law? A new study by the University of Tennessee’s Benjamin Barton, “An Empirical Study of Supreme Court Justice Pre-Appointment Experience,” suggests it might be. It finds that Supreme Court justices today have a far narrower set of pre-Court experience than in the past. Here is the abstract:
This study compares the years of experience that preceded appointment to the Supreme Court for each Justice. The study seeks to demonstrate that the background experiences of the Roberts Court Justices are quite different from the Justices of earlier Supreme Courts and to persuade the reader that this is insalubrious.
The first proposition is an empirical one and the difference in Justice backgrounds is demonstrable. To determine how the current Justices compare to their historical peers, the study gathered a massive database that considers the yearly pre-Court experience for every Supreme Court Justice from John Jay to Elena Kagan. The results are startling and telling: the Roberts Court Justices have spent more pre-appointment time in legal academia, appellate judging, and living in Washington, D.C. than any previous Supreme Court. They also spent the most time in elite undergraduate and law school settings. Time spent in these pursuits has naturally meant less time elsewhere: The Roberts Court Justices spent less time in the private practice of law, in trial judging, and as elected politicians than any previous Court. The article argues that the change is regretful for multiple normative reasons, including the way these experiences lead to legal complexity in Court decisions, the lack of litigation or trial experience on the Court, and the lack of what virtue ethics calls “practical wisdom.”
Even though Prof. Barton uses the word “insalubrious” in the abstract, the paper is still worth a look.