A place for smarts, not 'empathy'
Q: Elena Kagan's nomination has raised the prospect of an "all-Ivy" Supreme Court. Is it a good idea for any institution, or any sector of society, to rely so heavily on a handful of elite universities to educate and train its leaders?
In the "political" world, in which the ability to understand the concerns and preferences of one's constituents is an important consideration, or in the business world, where the ability to understand consumer desires may be helpful in the development and marketing of products, being one of the gang, so to speak, may provide some advantage. But at the higher levels of government, where decisions are complicated and their consequences great, representativeness is not enough: one must also have the ability to think critically about important issues and intelligently evaluate prescribed policies.
Judges, on the other hand, must have the ability to think not in terms of preference (that's the job of elected officials) but in terms of legality and constitutionality. For that, one wishes for men and women of the greatest intellectual capacity; because the intellectual standards for admission and graduation are generally higher at the more rigorous universities, no one should be surprised if those schools were to be disproportionately represented in the advancement to the federal bench.
If the legislative and executive branch offices -- the political arms of the government -- were to be overloaded with Ivy Leaguers (even though they may well have entered the universities from typical middle-class and even lower-income families), one might question whether elitism had begun creeping into the system.
Political leaders should have a high level of empathy, compassion, familiarity with difficulty -- or at least a sufficient number of them should have those qualities to ensure that they are a part of the political conversation -- but the president is wrong when he suggests that "empathy" is an important qualification for a Supreme Court Justice; empathy, while a nice quality, may lead to bias and favoritism -- a perfectly acceptable outcome in the political world and a completely unacceptable outcome in the judicial world.
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