Thursday, July 19, 2012

Law School Grades Don't Matter In Supreme Court Selection

The Indiana Law Blog has done yeoman's work in covering the proceedings of the Indiana Judicial Nominating Commission in interviewing candidates for vacant Supreme Court positions during the past two years. The latest selection process to fill the vacancy created by the retirement of Justice Frank Sullivan is no exception. Professor Joel Schumm provides an interesting analysis of the ten semi-finalists the Commission chose from the original 22 applicants to consider for a second round of interviews before narrowing their choice to three persons to recommend to the Governor for consideration. According to Schumm's analysis, the applicant's law school grades was not an important factor in the Commission's consideration; rather, he found that the performance of the applicant during the interview was a greater factor. Unfortunately, the public has to rely on the Indiana Law Blog's account of the interviews since the Commission does not webcast the interviews over the Internet for the public to view Schumm observes. As to the applicant's grades, Schumm observes that applicants with poorer law school grades fared better than those with better law school grades:

Those who advanced (and some who did not) have been actively involved in service to the legal profession through bar associations, Supreme Court agencies and committees, and the broader community. They also had particularly good interviews. Law school grades were seldom mentioned, and, when they were, merely as a passing compliment leading to a broader question.
Of the ten applicants with the highest GPAs, only 30% advanced to the next round (listed by highest rank first): Judge Vorhees, Ms. Lewis, and Mr. Slaughter.
Of the ten applicants with the lowest GPAs, 50% advanced (listed by highest rank first): Ms. Metzel, Judge Bradford, Judge Willis, Mr. Young, and Judge Nation.
Schumm notes that an applicant's class rank is probably a better measure of the person's law school performance than their actual grade point average. Unfortunately, many of the applicants did not disclose their class rank, particularly those with a lower GPA. I realize that grades aren't everything, but if you ever had to practice in front of a judge who seems to really struggle to understand the law, you would understand why some would prefer candidates who performed at least better than the average student in law school. Poor performance in law school might also reflect more on a student's poor writing skills than their actual mental aptitude.


Paul K. Ogden said...

I'm sorry, Gary, I have to disagree. I think grades in law school are a joke. To this day, I have never understood why some students get high grades, and other get low grades. There doesn't seem to be a rhyme or reason to the grades, like there was in college and high school.

Gary R. Welsh said...

Speaking as someone who graduated in the top ten percent of my class, I couldn't disagree more, Paul. I found undergrad grading a complete joke in a lot of classes because the means of grading often permitted high percentages of the class to earn As and Bs.

varangianguard said...

The validity of "grades" can be argued back and forth. Certainly, they can be an indicator of several potential factors that might be important when considering one for a judgeship.
Still, I would posit that an attorney's track record outside of Law School might prove more useful, especially if said attorney has previously been a judge.

Gary R. Welsh said...

You presuppose that our judicial system for selecting trial court judges in not flawed.

Cato said...

The grades shouldn't matter. Law school isn't real school. There's one exam at the end of the class, and the grades are either wholly random or reflective of the student's alignment with the instructor's views.

Cato said...

Varian, I'd rather see judges drawn from any pool of attorneys, except judges. Judges are almost always politically elevated to their positions.

varangianguard said...

No Gary, I know what you mean, but as a judge, there is some kind of "track record".

Of course, some kinds or records might be what "the deciders" are really looking at.

Too bad that the process of retention isn't done in some other manner.

Jeff Cox said...

I gotta go with Paul somewhat on this one, and I graduated cum laude. I saw the list showing the breakdown of who got the highest grades. Some of those people you really, really do not want to see on any court, let alone an appellate one. There's more to qualifications than grades.