U.S. Supreme Court

Antonin Scalia Law School moved up in rankings after it cultivated ties with Supreme Court justices

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George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School in September 2022. Photo by ajay_suresh, CC-BY-2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

An administrator at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School had rankings in mind in a 2017 memo promoting the idea of cultivating ties with the U.S. Supreme Court’s newest justice, Justice Neil Gorsuch.

“Establishing and building a strong relationship with Justice Gorsuch during his first full term on the bench could be a game-changing opportunity for Scalia Law, as it looks to accelerate its already-meteoric rise to the top rank of law schools in the United States,” said the memo obtained by the New York Times.

The school succeeded not only in recruiting Gorsuch to teach a summer class in Italy, but it also hired other justices, using them as “strategic assets” in a bid to make the law school “a Yale or Harvard of conservative legal scholarship and influence,” the New York Times reports.

The school is now tied for No. 30 in rankings by U.S. News & World Report, “a big jump in a relatively short time,” according to the New York Times.

Before Henry Butler took over as dean in 2015, the school had dropped to No. 45 in the rankings.

Besides moving up in the rankings, the school has attracted students with better credentials. And a growing number of graduates have secured clerkships at the Supreme Court and federal appeals courts, “an added burnishing of Scalia Law’s reputation,” according to the New York Times.

Butler had some help in his quest to better the school’s reputation from Leonard Leo, the former executive vice president of the Federalist Society, a conservative group. After Justice Antonin Scalia died in February 2016, Butler and Leo “struck a $30 million deal with donors to rename the school for him,” the New York Times reports. “The renaming would be a bridge to the court.”

Seven justices attended some portion of the law school’s dedication festivities. Three justices ended up teaching summer classes: Gorsuch (who has taught in Italy, Iceland and at a U.S. resort), Justice Clarence Thomas (who has taught on campus) and Justice Brett Kavanaugh (who has taught in Britain and at a U.S. resort). Justice Elena Kagan joined Gorusch “as a distinguished guest” when he taught in Iceland, according to the story.

When Gorsuch was recruited to teach the class in Italy, he was offered the opportunity to help choose the city where he would teach. An email sent to Gorusch made clear that he would teach only in the morning, “leaving plenty of time for excursions,” according to the New York Times. He is slated to teach in Portugal this summer.

According to the New York Times, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh and Thomas regularly used court employees to coordinate their outside academic duties, despite a judicial advisory opinion that staff members should not help perform paid outside activities.

Later, Butler “sought to convert his closeness with the justices—he was on a texting basis with Justices Kavanaugh and Thomas—into bragging rights with donors,” the New York Times reports. “He also began calling in favors. The emails show Scalia Law beseeching the justices to attend a host of law school activities, as guests or speakers. Students were given tours of the court, escorted by justices.”

A Supreme Court spokesperson declined to comment when contacted by the New York Times.

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