So which law school scored the highest-profile speaker? A handful of schools have yet to announce their speakers, but it looks like the always-in-demand justices of the United States Supreme Court opted to get off the beaten path.
Clarence Thomas will deliver the address at the University of Nebraska College of Law, while Elena Kagan will speak at the University of New Mexico School of Law. It’s the first time a Supreme Court justice has spoken on the Albuquerque campus.
“We are absolutely thrilled to have Elena Kagan as our commencement speaker,” said New Mexico law dean Kevin Washburn. “We’re also thrilled to have the opportunity to bring Justice Kagan out to the western part of the United States and the Southwest.”
Washburn — who was a visiting professor at Harvard Law School when Kagan was the dean — approached her about coming to New Mexico when she was solicitor general. Her nomination and confirmation to the Supreme Court delayed that visit for several years. When the school’s third-year students heard that she might be available for their commencement, they jumped at the opportunity, Washburn said.
Still, having a prominent graduation speaker is a double-edged sword.
“It changes the intimate nature of graduation and turns it into a public spectacle,” said Washburn, noting that the school has never before had to issue tickets for graduation, or deal with the U.S. Marshals Service or the local police department. “Bringing in a Supreme Court justice — everybody in the state wants to hear her.”
Graduation tickets are in high demand, and the school likely won’t be able to accommodate everyone who wants to come, Washburn said.
At Nebraska, it was sports that led to Thomas’ decision to speak. Thomas happens to be a diehard Cornhusker football fan.
“Last June, our dean, Susan Poser, had the opportunity to meet Justice Thomas as he was at an event hosted by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Athletic Department,” said law school communications director Molly Brummond. “Through the course of their conversation, she simply asked him if he would be our commencement speaker in 2011, and he graciously agreed.”
Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor will speak at the University of South Carolina, but not at the law school’s graduation ceremony — law students must settle for Republican U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham. Sotomayor will also deliver the commencement address at Ramapo College in New Jersey.
Northwestern University School of Law snagged retired Justice John Paul Stevens. Harvard Law School may take the cake for Hollywood star power — it has booked 30 Rock star Alec Baldwin.
Most law schools will opt for sitting or retired judges, U.S. attorneys and politicians. University of Michigan Law School Dean Evan Caminker caught flak from students last month for picking an alumnus, Republican U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, as the speaker for the law school’s senior day. Some students have protested on the ground that Portman’s record of voting for anti-gay legislation make him an inappropriate pick.
Among other notable speakers, the University of California at Los Angeles School of Law has President Obama’s confidant Valerie Jarrett on tap, while the University of Minnesota has Walter Mondale.
The University of Virginia School of Law will hear from U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Duquesne University School of Law from Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett and the University of Pennsylvania Law School from former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell. Columbia Law School will have George Madison, general counsel to the U.S. Department of Treasury, while George Washington University Law School will have John Snow, a former treasury secretary.
Newark Mayor Cory Booker will speak during New York Law School’s graduation ceremony, while Denny Chin of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2d Circuit will speak at Boston University School of Law.
Several law schools looked to the business world. The University of Texas School of Law will have Jack Balagia Jr., vice president and general counsel of Exxon Mobil Corp. The University of Chicago Law School will have Debra Cafaro, the chairwoman and chief executive officer of health care real estate investment trust Ventas Inc.
Other schools looked to the realm of media for their speakers. Golden Gate University School of Law has tapped New Yorker legal analyst and CNN contributor Jeffrey Toobin, while Washington and Lee University School of Law will have NPR legal correspondent Nina Totenberg. Drexel University Earle Mack School of Law has tapped Betty Anne Waters — the waitress turned attorney who managed to overturn her brother’s murder conviction and who was the real-life inspiration for last year’s film, Conviction.