He’s said so himself: Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas doesn’t like to get on the road. But in late September, the 73-year-old associate justice made an exception, traveling some 600-odd miles to speak at Notre Dame.
He is one of many notable conservative jurists to make this trip to South Bend recently.
In 2019, then-Attorney General William Barr delivered a high-profile speech on Notre Dame’s campus, condemning “secularists and their allies” for carrying out “an unremitting assault on religion and traditional values.” In September, when Thomas stepped up to the podium at Notre Dame, he criticized a divided nation and a “race-obsessed world.” Just 10 days after Thomas’s visit, Justice Samuel Alito — a nominee of former President George W. Bush — spoke in Notre Dame Law School’s courtroom, criticizing members of the media for promoting the “false and inflammatory claim that we nullified Roe v. Wade” in a Supreme Court case involving a Texas abortion law.
Is it a coincidence that all these conservative leaders have chosen to share these sentiments at Notre Dame?
“It’s not a coincidence,” said David Campbell, professor of political science at Notre Dame. “I would say there’s no coincidence there,” said Joshua Wilson, professor of political science at the University of Denver.
Notre Dame Law School, many scholars and observers say, has become something of a mecca for conservatives. Its faculty includes prominent conservative scholars, many of whom have clerked for conservative justices of the Supreme Court. Its alumna and former professor, Justice Amy Coney Barrett, cemented a 6-3 conservative majority on the Supreme Court when she was confirmed to the court in October 2020. In a book published shortly before Barrett’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, Wilson described Notre Dame Law School as “arguably the nation’s elite conservative law school.”
But the dean of Notre Dame Law School, G. Marcus Cole, thinks this reputation is misleading. “There are some people out there who think Notre Dame is a quote-unquote ‘conservative law school,’” he said. “I think that’s not true at all.”
“So when somebody told me that you wanted to talk about that, I jumped at the opportunity, because any chance I can get to set the story straight is one I want to take,” Cole told Scholastic.
Although political viewpoints run the gamut at Notre Dame Law School, conservatives say they feel more comfortable at Notre Dame than they do at other elite law schools, where liberals dominate. The law school’s uniquely diverse politics, along with its Catholic identity, have carved out an important niche for Notre Dame in the legal world.
A Home with a History
“The problem,” Cole said, “is that what's happened in the legal academy across the country is that conservatives have been shut out almost entirely. So we're one of a handful of schools that has any conservatives at all.”
Conservatives are a minority on most law school campuses, a wide body of evidence suggests. Based on political donation records, only 15% of American law professors and 35% of law students appear to be conservative, a 2018 study in the Journal of Legal Studies found. At the nation’s top-14 law schools, students are especially left leaning, a 2015 study in the Journal of Legal Analysis found.
“Harvard Law School has over 100 people on the faculty, and I would be surprised if there are more than two people on the faculty who voted for Donald Trump,” Michael Klarman, a professor at Harvard Law School, told Scholastic. “And I would be surprised if there are more than five to 10 who consider themselves Republicans.”
At Notre Dame, Cole said, the faculty and students are much more politically diverse. The law school conducts surveys of its incoming students each year, he said, and the students tend to be evenly split between liberals, conservatives and those “in between.” The dean declined to share these internal records with Scholastic. "While we do not release the results of these annual surveys, we can describe the trends we see in students' responses," Cole wrote in an email.
Cole said he thinks that conservatives still make up a minority of the NDLS faculty, though a larger presence than at many other law schools. The political donations of Notre Dame faculty members suggest that Cole is right.
This conservative presence has set Notre Dame apart in the landscape of higher education. Among Notre Dame Law School students and faculty, Wilson wrote in his recent book, there’s “an understanding that Notre Dame has occupied a unique space within the legal academy, and a belief that it possesses a corresponding prestige that is not fully captured by its U.S. News ranking.”
For the 2022 school year, U.S. News & World Report ranked Notre Dame Law School number 22 out of all American law schools. But by other metrics, NDLS is beating out its peers in the vaunted “top 14”: Notre Dame’s class of 2019 ranked 7th in the nation for federal clerkship placements, Law.com reported using American Bar Association data; and as a Notre Dame Law alumna, Barrett is the only non-Ivy-League-educated justice currently on the court.
Despite conservatives’ many criticisms of elite universities, “the legal profession is very concerned with prestige and credentialing,” Wilson said. For most lawyers who want to clerk for — or become — a federal judge, a degree from a top-ranked law school remains a prerequisite.
Some conservative Christians have tried to form their own institutions, free from the perceived scourge of liberalism and secularism in higher education: Oral Roberts University, established in 1965; Liberty University, established in 1971; Regent University, established in 1977. (These schools are the subject of Wilson and Amanda Hollis-Brusky’s book, “Separate but Faithful: The Christian Right’s Radical Struggle to Transform Law and Legal Culture.”)
But these Christian law schools — mostly the domain of conservative evangelicals — lack the academic reputations and alumni networks necessary for success in the upper levels of American law, Wilson said.
“Those institutions,” Wilson said, “are literally 100-plus years behind where Catholics are.”
American Catholics have spent centuries developing colleges and universities aligned with their religious mission. And this intellectual tradition, Campbell said, has poised Catholic conservatives to be important players on the Christian right. Evangelical Christians — a powerful political force in the Republican Party — have come to “kind of rely on conservative Catholics to advance the ideas that they have,” Campbell said.
(This is not to say, of course, that all — or even most — Catholics are conservatives; according to Pew Research Center data, American Catholics are about evenly split between the Democratic and Republican parties.)
It’s worth noting that seven of the nine current Supreme Court justices were raised Catholic, and six of those seven Catholic justices were appointed by Republicans. The other two justices, both liberals, are Jewish. “It’s truly amazing,” Campbell said. “There are no Protestants.”
Many Catholic universities are top-ranked institutions: Georgetown, Fordham, Boston College. But many of those schools also have the reputation of being “religious in name only,” Wilson said.
Notre Dame, on the other hand, is seen as the real deal: a serious and respected university grounded in its religious mission, Wilson said. With its alumni network, powerful brand and religious values, Notre Dame Law School offers the elite pedigree and remains a friendly home to conservatives.
“A place where they won't be canceled, they won't be shouted down”
Cole thinks that the intellectual diversity might sway talented conservatives to choose Notre Dame over its competitor law schools: “It could be the case that we have talented conservative students who see Notre Dame as a place where they won't be canceled, they won't be shouted down and a place of open dialogue and real, authentic, genuine debate,” Cole said.
Joshua Lacoste, a second-year law student who considers himself a conservative, told Scholastic that the diversity of thought at NDLS influenced his decision to attend. Following his undergraduate years at Tulane University, Lacoste said, “the intellectual diversity has been a pleasant surprise at Notre Dame.”
As some at Notre Dame see it, other law schools have become increasingly hostile to conservative ideas and free expression. “These trends are glaringly illustrated by the widespread adoption in higher education of 'harm' and 'safety' rhetoric, and of denunciation and reporting rather than civil engagement, in the context of ideas, claims, and arguments,” Richard Garnett, a professor of law at Notre Dame, wrote in an email to Scholastic.
“In my experience, even if there's not a chilling effect from an administration, there's certainly a cultural chilling effect that takes place in the student culture,” Cole said.
In his speech at Notre Dame, Thomas suggested that Notre Dame was the vestige of a bygone era: "Being here today, this is what universities were — you thought about things, you debated things, you learned how to disagree without being a jerk," Thomas said.
A Legal Launching Pad
Even in this collegial environment, Notre Dame’s law students are jockeying for influence — working quietly to secure judicial clerkships and other high-powered legal positions.
The Federalist Society, a networking organization for conservative and libertarian lawyers, has a large presence on Notre Dame’s campus. Notre Dame’s chapter is one of the largest in the country, with 300 people on its listserv, chapter president and third-year law student Katelyn Doehring told Scholastic.
The Federalist Society works to connect law students with opportunities — and to connect power brokers with promising young talent. In this sense, it supplements the kind of networking that a law school can offer its students.
One Notre Dame Law School faculty member also made the opposite comparison in Wilson and Hollis-Brusky’s book — likening Notre Dame to “kind of like the Federalist Society distilled in the sense of that’s the place you go for your judges, and this is where you go for your clerks.”
On the left side of the spectrum, Notre Dame hasn’t always provided the same quality of connections and opportunities, one NDLS alumna said.
Allison Lantero, who graduated from NDLS in 2021, wanted a clerkship. On campus, she served as the president of Notre Dame’s chapter of the American Constitution Society — the progressive counterpoint to the Federalist Society.
“Notre Dame Law School's claims about clerkship placement were a factor in my decision to attend,” Lantero wrote in an email to Scholastic. “So you can imagine how disappointed I was to graduate without so much as a clerkship interview.”
“Like with most jobs, getting a clerkship appears to be much easier through networking,” Lantero wrote. “It's about who you know and who they know… [T]he Federalist Society has advisors who are very well-connected within the conservative judicial community. While there are some more progressive professors at Notre Dame, they are not as well connected to the progressive judicial community — so progressive students at NDLS start a step behind.”
The influence of Notre Dame’s conservatives has empowered its graduates to take on major roles in the legal field. For its liberal students, Lantero said, “this seems to be an issue the school is working to resolve.”
Given its association with prominent conservative leaders, do NDLS administrators worry the law school might be perceived as partisan?
“Yes,” Cole said, adding, “It’s certainly not partisan.” But if the school is misperceived in this way, Cole said, many students and faculty won’t take advantage of the opportunities NDLS has to offer.
This narrative that Notre Dame Law School is a political, conservative institution, Cole said, “has been cultivated by partisan activists.”
Coincidentally, perhaps, the Supreme Court is dealing with similar public relations challenges. In 2020, shortly before the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg opened up a seat on the court, a Gallup poll found that 53% of Americans approved of the way the Supreme Court was handling its job.
One year later — this September — that approval rating has dropped to 40%.
Klarman, whose research at Harvard focuses on Constitutional Law, blames the justices. “This set of conservative justices have turned the court in a more conservative direction than any Supreme Court in 100 years,” he said, adding, “At its extremes, it's basically becoming a wing of the Republican Party.”
Conservative legal scholars are quick to point out that their philosophy is one of legal interpretation — not politics. Yet the career trajectory of conservative jurists often depends on Republican politicians.
Some, like Garnett, reject the label ‘conservative’ altogether: “Because these labels are so prone to misunderstanding, I cannot endorse one,” Garnett wrote to Scholastic. “I am a Catholic lawyer who believes in the rule of law and the separation of powers, and who thinks that constitutional democracy is the best way to structure political authority.”
Speaking of his personal relationship with Justice Barrett, Cole added, “she's not in any way, shape, or form a political person. She is someone who believes in, and obeys, the rule of law. And she's someone who's characterized by political actors as being political, when she, in fact, is a very good lawyer and a very good judge.”
Klarman disagrees. “I would go so far as to state pretty strongly that the idea that the justices are somehow apart from, or above, politics is pretty naive — and probably just a little bit absurd,” he said. Although many justices say their decisions are a matter of legal philosophy, Klarman said, “those methodologies themselves may be chosen because of their political implications.” Their adherence to these methodologies, he added, are often inconsistent.
Cole, on the other hand, blamed the media for misrepresenting the court’s motives. Their reporting, he said, has unfairly branded the court as a political institution.
“I think what's eroding trust in the rule of law is the way the court is being characterized in the press, frankly, by people who have an axe to grind — who have an interest in discrediting the court,” he said.
His words echoed the sentiments of Justice Alito, whose speech at Notre Dame was a blistering critique of the media.
“A Common Culture”
In his Notre Dame speech, Thomas paused for a moment to reflect on his relationship with the late Justice Antonin Scalia — an appointee of President Ronald Reagan and a devout Catholic.
Thomas and Scalia tended to “independently arrive at the same conclusion in so many cases,” Thomas recalled, which was a bit of a mystery. On the surface, the two seemed to have little in common: Scalia had grown up in an educated family in the Northeast, Thomas in an uneducated family in the deep South.
After Scalia’s death, Thomas said, he pondered this very question with Scalia’s son Paul, a Catholic priest. Paul, Thomas recalled, “immediately attributed our shared judicial approach to our formation: We were both Catholics, attended parochial schools and — despite the geographic separation — benefited from a common culture.”
Thomas added: “So much of my thinking about the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence is influenced by this formation, and the world of my youth.”
Thomas told the audience that he could imagine himself taking a different path in his youth, one where that Catholic formation continued through his later years.
“Had I seen this university when I applied to college, there is no doubt I would have been here,” he said. The audience laughed, respectfully.