August 28, 2005--PROFESSORS at the best law schools are generally assumed to be overwhelmingly liberal, and now a new study lends proof. But whether the ideological imbalance matters - to the academic environment students encounter, to the kinds of lawyers the schools produce and to the stock of ideas the professors generate - depends on whom you ask.
The study, to be published this fall in The Georgetown Law Journal, analyzes 11 years of records reflecting federal campaign contributions by professors at the top 21 law schools as ranked by U.S. News & World Report. Almost a third of these law professors contribute to campaigns, but of them, the study finds, 81 percent who contributed $200 or more gave wholly or mostly to Democrats; 15 percent gave wholly or mostly to Republicans.
The percentages of professors contributing to Democrats were even more lopsided at some of the most prestigious schools: 91 percent at Harvard, 92 at Yale, 94 at Stanford. At the University of Virginia, on the other hand, contributions were about evenly divided between the parties. The sample sizes at some schools may be too small to allow for comparisons, though it bears noting that by this measure the University of Chicago is slightly more liberal than Berkeley.
If the liberal law professors mean to indoctrinate students, though, they have failed spectacularly in some notable cases. The United States Supreme Court's two most conservative members, Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, are products of Harvard and Yale, respectively. And if John G. Roberts Jr., another conservative, is confirmed this fall, another conservative graduate of Harvard Law will be added to the court.
Whatever may be said about particular schools and students, professors and deans of all political persuasions agreed that the study's general findings are undeniable.
"Academics tend to be more to the left side of the continuum," said David E. Van Zandt, dean of Northwestern's law school, where the contribution rate to Democrats was 71 percent. "It's a little worse in law school. In other disciplines, there are more objective standards for quality of work. Law schools are sort of organized in a club structure, where current members of the club pick future members of the club."
That can do a disservice to academic values, said Peter H. Schuck, a Yale law professor and the author of "Diversity in America: Keeping Government at a Safe Distance." "We have a higher responsibility to our students, ourselves and our disciplines," he said, "that our preference for ideological homogeneity and faculty-lounge echo chambers betrays."
Law professors' politics may be similar to those of other academics, but they are not representative of people with similar credentials and incomes. In the 2000 election cycle, according to data from the National Election Study produced at the University of Michigan, 34 percent of people with advanced degrees and 44 percent of those earning $95,000 to $200,000 gave exclusively to Democratic candidates. For law professors, the new study finds, it was 78 percent.
The figures suggest that liberal law professors do not always produce liberal lawyers.
"I don't think the liberal bias of law school faculties has much impact on the students," said Richard A. Posner, a federal appeals court judge who teaches at the University of Chicago. "Law students are careerists, and for them law school is career preparation, not Sunday chapel."
The profession itself, said Nathaniel Persily, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, may moderate the influence of the academy. "Insofar as an elite law school might push students to the left," Professor Persily said, "corporate law firms might bring them back to the center."
John O. McGinnis, a law professor at Northwestern who prepared the study along with two New York lawyers, Matthew A. Schwartz and Benjamin Tisdell, said it was meant for the most part to present data rather than draw conclusions.
But the study does note an arguable inconsistency in the way law schools approach student admissions and faculty hiring.
When the United States Supreme Court endorsed race-conscious admissions policies in 2003, it based its decision on the importance of ensuring the representation of diverse viewpoints in the classroom.
Law schools that take race into account in admissions decisions, the study says, "open themselves to charges of intellectual inconsistency" if they do not also address the ideological imbalances on their faculties.
The most serious problem pointed to by the study, Professor McGinnis said, is that the ideas generated by the law schools are both uniform and untested.
"It may be," he added, "that the rise of conservative think tanks counterbalances this effect to a degree. As one who believes in markets, I think that alternative institutions in the long run will arise to supply ideas." Even so, he said, "liberal ideas might well be strengthened and made more effective if liberals had to run a more conservative gantlet among their own colleagues when developing them."