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Elena Kagan not a judge? Well, at least she went to law school.

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That apparent paradox can be explained by the fact that for much of the nation’s history the most common path to lawyerdom was simply to read law books, often while working in a practicing attorney’s office.

For instance, John Jay, the nation’s first chief justice, read law in a New York law office following his 1764 graduation from college. He was admitted to the bar in 1768.

Decoder’s ancestor Robert C. Grier read law while teaching school in the early 19th century. He passed the bar in 1817. Appointed an associate Supreme Court justice in 1846, he served on the high court for 24 years. (Served badly, we might add – historians rate him among the worst Supreme Court justices ever.)

This practice persisted well into the 20th century. The last justice without a law school degree was Stanley F. Reed, who was appointed to the Supreme Court by FDR in 1938, and served until 1957. Reed studied law at the University of Virginia and Columbia but never graduated. He learned law working at a small firm in Maysville, Ky., from 1910 to 1917.

Of course, there is nothing in the Constitution that says you have to be a lawyer to be on the Supreme Court. And some experts argue the US would be better off with some non-lawyers on the nation’s highest bench.

After all, many of the Supreme Court’s most important decisions involve matters of moral or political importance, not fine points of law. Think “Brown v. Board of Education”, or “Bush v. Gore.”

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