Conservative judges say they will boycott Columbia University students


More than a dozen conservative federal judges are threatening to not hire law clerks who attend Columbia University or its law school starting this fall – an attempt to show the judges’ displeasure over the institution’s handling of pro-Palestinian protests.

In a letter addressed to Minouche Shafik, the embattled president of Columbia University, and Gillian Lester, dean of Columbia Law School, 13 judges nominated by President Donald Trump said the university has become “ground zero for the explosion of student disruptions, anti-semitism, and hatred for diverse viewpoints on campuses across the Nation.”

“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 judges wrote. “Columbia has instead become an incubator of bigotry. As a result, Columbia has disqualified itself from educating the future leaders of our country.”

The lead signatories include Judges Elizabeth L. Branch of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit; James C. Ho of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit; and Matthew H. Solomson of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims. U.S. District Judge Matthew J. Kacsmaryk, who became known across the nation for his decision to suspend federal approval of the abortion pill mifepristone, also signed onto the letter.

Federal judges hire top law school graduates for prestigious year-long clerkships. The clerks conduct legal research; prepare bench memos; draft orders and opinions; and assist their judge during courtroom proceedings, gaining valuable work experience and job recommendations to help launch their legal careers.

The boycott, announced this week, would not apply to students already enrolled at the university. Instead, the 13 judges wrote in the letter that they would not hire any student who attends Columbia University as an undergraduate or a law student beginning in the coming academic year.

In a statement, Lester did not directly address questions about the planned boycott, but said “we are proud that Columbia Law School graduates are consistently sought out by leading employers in the private and public sectors, including the judiciary. And we are deeply committed to supporting our exceptional students as they prepare to embark on their careers in the legal profession.”

A spokesperson for Shafik’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

Monday’s clerkship boycott is the latest fallout from the ongoing demonstrations over Israel’s military invasion of Gaza following Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel.

Shafik, who is the first woman to lead Columbia University since its founding, has faced calls from Republicans to resign over her handling of the protests. Lawmakers, including House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.), have accused her of not acting quickly enough to quell student unrest or make Jewish students feel safe on campus. House Democrats have also expressed outrage over antisemitic harassment of Jewish students on and around campus.

More than 200 people have been arrested at Columbia, prompting criticism from free speech advocates who say the crackdown is antithetical to the university’s tradition of celebrating student activism. The university on Monday canceled its main commencement ceremony.

The authors of the letter either did not respond to requests for comment or declined to comment.

One federal judge familiar with the letter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak freely, said the purpose of the boycott is not to make “schools more conservative or more liberal,” but to “make schools more like schools,” and to address what these judges see as an unwillingness to accept diverse viewpoints.

“I worry that we are teaching people, including in law schools, that we should not see the law as a neutral endeavor,” the judge said. “We’re starting to see the world in terms of red and blue, and we’re teaching law students to view it [that way].”

Former federal judge Jeremy Fogel questioned whether it’s appropriate for judges to weigh in on the campus protests – even if doing so does not violate a specific ethics rule – because taking a stance reflects on their impartiality.

“Why do we have [ethics] rules in the first place?” said Fogel, who spent 13 years as a judge in the Northern District of California. “One of the reasons we have the rules is to convey the idea that the judiciary is impartial and independent, and they’re going to decide cases based on the law. So when judges weigh in on controversial issues, it’s an indication that they have a certain orientation or a certain philosophical outlook that could cause people to think that they’re not going to be open to things as you want judges to be.”

Fogel said he wouldn’t have signed the letter.

Stephen Gillers, a judicial ethics expert at New York University’s law school, shared similar concerns.

“Judges do get to choose their law clerks, but they hold that power in trust and must exercise it fairly and based on merit,” Gillers said in a statement. “The judges here, however, abuse their power when they punish Columbia graduates not for what they did but for where they went to school. This is a form of collective guilt that American law has always rejected.”

The judge who spoke on the condition of anonymity defended the signatories’ decision to sign the letter, arguing that “judges do a lot of stuff beyond just deciding the case in front of them,” and saying that judges have wide latitude when hiring clerks.

“I’ve heard plenty of judges talk about how they prefer their own school – their alma mater,” the judge said. “There are judges who want to hire more women, there are judges who like to hire veterans, on and on and on and on. … This is simply one kind of that.”

Ho and Branch had previously announced boycotts of clerks from Yale Law School and Stanford Law School because of “cancel culture” and free speech concerns. Ho’s chambers confirmed in a statement to The Washington Post that his boycotts of students from those schools remains in effect.



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