Why is a Law Degree a Prerequisite for the Presidency?
by Nonpartisan, Wed May 02, 2007 at 08:41:15 PM EDT
Below, compiled from Politics1, are the terminal degrees of the announced Democratic and Republican candidates for President:
Law Degree (JD):
- Hillary Clinton (Yale, 1973)
- Barack Obama (Harvard, 1991, magna cum laude)
- John Edwards (UNC, 1977)
- Joe Biden (Syracuse U., 1968)
- Chris Dodd (U. of Louisville, 1972)
- Rudy Giuliani (NYU, 1968, magna cum laude)
- Mitt Romney (Harvard, 1975, cum laude; Romney also has an MBA from Harvard, 1975)
- Sam Brownback (Kansas, 1982)
- Duncan Hunter (Western State U., 1976)
- Tommy Thompson (Wisconsin, 1966)
- Jim Gilmore (Virginia, 1977)
Master of Arts (MA):
- Bill Richardson (Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts, 1971)
- Dennis Kucinich (Case Western, 1973)
Bachelor of Science (BS):
- Mike Gravel (Economics, Columbia, 1956)
Bachelor of Arts (BA):
- Tom Tancredo (U. of Northern Colorado, 1968)
Medical Degree (MD):
- Ron Paul (Duke, 1961)
Military Degree (BS):
- John McCain (West Point, 1958)
- Mike Huckabee (BS, Religion, Ouachita Baptist University, 1975, magna cum laude, and certification as a Baptist minister)
Anything stand out about this list to you? How about from a historical perspective?
According to the American Bar Association, the following are America's lawyer Presidents:
America's Lawyer Presidents
- John Adams
- Thomas Jefferson
- James Monroe
- John Quincy Adams
- Andrew Jackson
- Martin Van Buren
- John Tyler
- James K. Polk
- Millard Fillmore
- Franklin Pierce
- James Buchanan
- Abraham Lincoln
- Rutherford B. Hayes
- James A. Garfield
- Chester A. Arthur
- Grover Cleveland
- Benjamin Harrison
- William McKinley
- William Howard Taft
- Woodrow Wilson
- Calvin Coolidge
- Franklin Delano Roosevelt
- Richard M. Nixon
- Gerald R. Ford
- William Jefferson Clinton
I would personally dispute the inclusion of Woodrow Wilson on this list, as he had a higher terminal degree (Ph.D. in Political Science) and spent many more years as a professor of history and political science than as a lawyer. On the other hand, the ABA excludes James Madison, arguing that he only "dabbled" in the law; in my opinion, Madison's "dabbling" was the direct cause of the U.S. Constitution, so I'd include him. Considering that these two balance each other out, we are left with the following:
Percentage of Presidents with Law Degrees as their Highest Terminal Degrees Or Who Practiced Law as Their Main Career
Percentage of Declared Presidential Candidates with Law degrees as their Highest Terminal Degrees
Cripes, those numbers are similar.
Okay -- let's look at this in more detail. Some of the lawyers on both these lists clearly made it because they were lawyers. On the current candidates list, John Edwards won landmark cases against abusive corporations; Barack Obama was elected president of the Harvard Law Review; Rudy Giuliani put the Gotti family in jail as City Attorney for New York. Similarly, in the Presidents list, John Adams defended the British officers in the Boston Massacre; Abraham Lincoln's judicial exploits are legendary; Benjamin Harrison, according to Harry Lambeth, was possessed of a "brilliant mind, extraordinary memory, unusual power of analysis, and great speaking ability." To be fair, too, lawyers have been some of our greatest Presidents (Lincoln, FDR), while the non-George-Washington practitioners of our other great Presidential pastime, military service, have fared much poorer (Ulysses S. Grant, Dwight D. Eisenhower).
But to get back to the candidates at hand, what does Chris Dodd's law degree have to do with his qualifications for President? Are they the reason he's in politics, or is it because of his father's political history? (And before you jump down my throat, tis isn't a hit on Dodd -- he's done a fantastic job in thirty years in the Senate, but he got his seat partly because of his father's name, as did Bob Casey and Beau Biden and Mitt Romney.) Speaking of Romney, what does HIS law degree have anything to do with? He was elected because of his famous father, because he saved the SLC Olympics, and because he has gobs and gobs of money.
Romney's vast wealth points to one reason that lawyers continue to be successful politicians: money. High-powered lawyers can make enough money to completely self-finance their campaigns (as John Edwards did in his 1998 Senate race); more importantly, it's a profession where a LOT of people make a lot of money and do a lot of networking. That money is always at the fingertips of a prominent and popular lawyer, a ready-made network of funds and fundraisers.
Another, and more lamentable, reason so many successful candidates have law degrees is that most of them are essentially career politicians. Brownback was a Senator four years after he got his JD; Biden was elected to City Council in literally the first election in which he was eligible to run after receiving his law degree. These people don't get law degrees because they want to be lawyers, they get them because they want something respectable to do while they wait to come of age and run for political office. A JD is the easiest graduate degree to obtain, so they choose that path.
It wasn't arbitrary that most of our first Presidents had legal expertise. Many of them were involved in the Critical Period of American democracy -- the period from 1781-1791 when the Constitution and Bill of Rights were formulated and passed. A law degree is exceedingly important when your main job is writing and tweaking the law. But today that's not the primary job of any President, and a law degree simply isn't necessary, or even necessarily desirable, as Presidential training.
To put it another way, despite the legal failings of the Bush Administration, I'm not convinced Bush would have been a better President if he'd earned a law degree instead of an MBA. Frankly, it's not his job to write laws, or even to figure out their legal ramifications after he signs them. He's got staffers galore with JDs who can keep him up to speed on those things. Instead, Bush lacks three things that aren't taught in law school: common sense, a dextrous grasp of foreign policy, and a sense of his presidency in history.
I'd love to see some Presidents with terminal degrees in political science (like Woodrow Wilson), history (though PLEASE GOD not Newt Gingrich) or foreign policy (like Bill Richardson). But I'll settle for having a campaign that, for once, isn't dominated by those people all Americans love to hate: lawyers. Let's instead elect Presidents who have expertise or experience in a field that has actual relevance to the job they'll be doing in the White House: maintaining a fragile world order, developing new policy proposals and ideas, and making life-and-death decisions.
Heck, even the Brits are doing it.