13 Federal Judges Say They Will No Longer Hire Law Clerks From Columbia University, Citing ‘Virulent Spread of Antisemitism’ and ‘Explosion of Student Disruptions’

Columbia Law School (Wikimedia Commons)
May 6, 2024

Thirteen federal judges said Monday that they would no longer hire law clerks from Columbia College or Columbia Law School after the university allowed an encampment on its lawn to spiral into a destructive occupation of a campus building. The judges cited the "explosion of student disruptions" and the "virulent spread of antisemitism" at Columbia, which has now canceled its main graduation ceremony because of the unrest.

Led by appellate judges James Ho and Elizabeth Branch, who spearheaded a clerkship boycott of Yale Law School in 2022 and Stanford Law School in 2023, as well as by Matthew Solomson on the U.S Court of Federal Claims, the judges wrote in a letter to Columbia president Minouche Shafik that they would no longer hire "anyone who joins the Columbia University community—whether as undergraduates or as law students—beginning with the entering class of 2024."

"Freedom of speech protects protest, not trespass, and certainly not acts or threats of violence or terrorism," the judges wrote. "It has become clear that Columbia applies double standards when it comes to free speech and student misconduct."

The letter’s signatories include Alan Albright, a district judge who hears a fourth of the nation’s patent cases; Stephen Vaden, a former general counsel at the Department of Agriculture who now sits on the United States Court of International Trade; and Matthew Kacsmaryk, the district judge who suspended approval of the abortion drug mifepristone in a controversial ruling last year. Others are well-known district judges appointed by former president Donald Trump.

While 12 judges joined the Yale boycott anonymously, Monday’s letter marks the first time that more than two judges have said on the record that they will not hire graduates from an elite university.

It also marks an about-face for Solomson—one of the letter’s lead signatories—who previously criticized the boycotts of Yale and Stanford as a form of collective punishment. His decision to spearhead the Columbia boycott underscores just how much good will the school has lost over the encampment, which effectively put the campus on lockdown.

The letter, which comes one week after students occupied Columbia’s main administrative building, Hamilton Hall, with support from faculty, argues that the rot has spread too deep for judges to hire from Columbia "absent extraordinary change." It is likely to fuel debate about the value of an Ivy League degree, which, per a much-discussed prediction by statistics guru Nate Silver, "is going to go down a lot."

"Recent events demonstrate that ideological homogeneity throughout the entire institution of Columbia has destroyed its ability to train future leaders of a pluralistic and intellectually diverse country," the judges write. "If Columbia had been faced with a campus uprising of religious conservatives upset because they view abortion as a tragic genocide, we have no doubt that the university’s response would have been profoundly different."

The letter marks a new front in the hellish public relations war that has consumed Columbia and cost it major donor capital. As the encampment drew throngs of outsiders to the university’s doorstep—some of whom promised daily repeats of the Oct. 7 attacks—pressure mounted on Shafik, the university’s president, to lay down the law.

She did not do so until April 30, after nearly 5,000 alumni signed a petition demanding that the police clear Hamilton Hall. In the interim, Columbia lost one of its most prominent patrons, Robert Kraft, who said he could not in good conscience donate to a school awash in "virulent hate." Billionaires Leon Cooperman and Henry Swieca have also cut ties with the university.

The clerkship boycott represents one of the most extreme forms of outside pressure yet. It targets a key source of the university’s prestige and could deter right-leaning high school seniors with an interest in law from applying to Columbia for college, at a time when some families are revisiting enrollment decisions amid the unrest.

Unlike the boycotts of Yale and Stanford, which apply only to the universities’ law schools, the moratorium on Columbia clerks extends to undergraduates as well.

"As judges who hire law clerks every year to serve in the federal judiciary, we have lost confidence in Columbia as an institution of higher education," the letter reads. "Columbia has instead become an incubator of bigotry."

Columbia did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Ho and Branch, the two judges, announced in 2022 that they would no longer hire clerks from Yale Law School, citing a string of incidents in which speakers were shouted down and students were threatened with discipline for exercising their free speech. They extended the boycott to Stanford after a mob of students shouted down their colleague, Kyle Duncan, with help from the law school’s diversity dean.

Both boycotts focused on administrators who Ho and Branch said had encouraged student radicalism and cultivated an ideological monoculture. At Columbia, by contrast, the protests’ biggest boosters have come not from the administration but from the faculty.

Joseph Howley, a classics professor who chairs a required first-year humanities course for all undergraduates, gave interviews from inside the encampment and said there was "no evidence" of anti-Semitism on Columbia’s campus. Numerous faculty groups have condemned Shafik’s decision to call the police—both at the start of the encampment to arrest protesters and last week to clear Hamilton Hall—with the university’s chapter of American Association of University Professors calling for a vote of no confidence. In the history department alone, well over half the faculty signed a statement condemning the "criminalization" of the protest, which violated numerous laws and school rules.

"Both professors and administrators are on the front lines of the campus disruptions, encouraging the virulent spread of antisemitism and bigotry," the judges write. "Significant and dramatic change in the composition of its faculty and administration is required to restore confidence in Columbia."

The boycott could spur that change by exploiting the logic of supply and demand. Clerkships are a coveted commodity among law students, and part of the selling point of elite law schools is that they help their students land one. Since there are far more conservative judges than there are conservative law students, law schools rely disproportionately on conservatives to boost their clerkship placements and prestige—a dynamic that confers significant leverage on the right side of the federal bench.

While it’s hard to measure the success of past boycotts, Yale Law School made a number of reforms in the years following Ho and Branch’s pressure campaign. It hired two conservative law professors—previously the school employed zero—and announced that one of them, Keith Whittington, would launch a new center devoted to the study of academic freedom. Stanford also made noise about its commitment to open debate, parting ways with the diversity dean, Tirien Steinbach, who had disrupted Duncan and requiring a cursory session on free speech for all law students.

At Columbia, the judges are demanding "serious consequences" for the students and professors who participated in the encampment. Though the school has promised to expel the occupiers of Hamilton Hall and suspend others for trespassing, it has been vague about the terms of those suspensions, which followed weeks of amnesty and extended deadlines as the university tried to negotiate with protest leaders.

Some suspended students were also spotted at the encampment after they’d ostensibly been kicked off campus—including Khymani James, the protest leader who declared that "Zionists don’t deserve to live." Another student, Aidan Parisi, who was suspended for hosting an unauthorized event with members of Palestinian terror groups, remained on campus for weeks after being told to leave.

The judges suggest that the school’s disciplinary actions so far have been inadequate. "In recent years, citizens have been told that unlawfully trespassing on and occupying public spaces is a sufficient basis to warrant incarceration," the letter reads. "So that same conduct should surely be sufficient to warrant lesser measures such as expulsion or termination."