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Prof. Dan Crane 

Is there a correlation between religion and an elite legal education?

By John Masson
Sept. 28, 2012

Michigan Law's Prof. Dan Crane and Penn Law's Prof. David Skeel started thinking about the ramifications of the retirement of Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens at about the time his replacement, Elena Kagan, was named to the Court.

That's partly because Justice Stevens, a Protestant, was the last of his kind on the High Court, they told a Michigan Law audience recently. All nine justices now are either Roman Catholic or Jewish. Profs. Crane and Skeel couldn't help but wonder what, if any, social forces might be behind the change.

Supreme Court justices don't come from just anywhere, after all. At the moment, all of them went to law school at either Harvard or Yale, then continued up through other elite channels to become eligible for consideration for the high court.

So Profs. Crane and Skeel decided to look at how individuals' religions interrelate with their access to those elite channels.

They examined available data about the religious preferences of Americans at large, then—in what they described as a low-budget and only nominally scientific way—they asked students at Michigan Law about their religious preferences.

They found that "evangelical Protestants are not represented at anywhere near their numbers" in the general population at elite institutions like Michigan Law, Prof. Crane said.

They plan to run the same survey shortly at Yale Law as well, Prof. Crane said.

Meanwhile, Prof. Skeel, who identified himself as an evangelical Protestant during the talk, was at Penn's law library, trying to figure out how elite law journals have treated Christianity during the 20th century. He found that before 1910, articles relating to Christianity weren't all that uncommon in law journals. But between 1910 and the turn of the 21st century, he said, that changed dramatically.

"There were basically no articles in the elite publications in the 20th century," Prof. Skeel said. Those articles that did touch on Christianity, he added, were in the journals of Catholic institutions like Georgetown and Fordham. It wasn't animosity, Prof. Skeel concluded—it was more like lack of interest.

That's some of the story, Prof. Skeel added. Another part of it, he argued, may be the historical mistrust of intellectualism among many evangelical Christians, which may minimize interest in pursuing the kind of elite education that can lead to a Supreme Court appointment.

The talk was sponsored by Michigan Law's Christian Legal Society and the U-M Center for Faith & Scholarship.

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