Texas GOP senator didn't "graduate" from Oxford University law program, as claimed in prior campaign

Cornyn attacked an opponent a few years later for "padding his resume," referencing a lie about a college degree

Published October 30, 2020 10:38PM (EDT)

Sen. John Cornyn (Al Drago/Getty Images)
Sen. John Cornyn (Al Drago/Getty Images)

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Tx., who currently finds himself in an unusually competitive race against Democratic opponent MJ Hegar, previously falsely represented himself as a graduate of Oxford University in England in the run-up to his successful election to the Texas Supreme Court, press and public records show.

In the eight months before Cornyn's 1990 election to the state's highest court, seven Texas publications, including regional standard-bearers such as the Austin-American Statesman and the Houston Chronicle, published 10 profiles claiming that Cornyn had "graduated" from "the Judicial Studies Program" at Oxford.

The profiles, archived versions of which were reviewed by Salon, ran from February until days before the election in November, with headlines like "Judge Promises 'Restoration of Integrity'" and "Cornyn's Record Makes Him Choice for Supreme Court." The latter article concluded by mentioning the Oxford program.

However, during his campaign for attorney general of Texas eight years later, Cornyn repeatedly attacked Republican rival Barry Williamson for padding his resume "just like Lena Guerrero did" — a reference to a Texas Democrat who two years prior lost a race for state office to Williamson after it was revealed that she had lied about having a college diploma.

"It's a question of inflating his resume to give the false impression that he has more judicial experience than he actually has," Cornyn told the Austin-American Statesman at the time.

The Oxford claim misrepresents Cornyn's qualifications, and though its origins are unclear, went uncorrected by Cornyn for the duration of the campaign, leaving voters with the impression that he passed through one of the most prestigious institutions in the world. In reality, Cornyn earned his highest degree from the School of Law at St. Mary's University in San Antonio in 1977 — a Juris Doctor.

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany erroneously claimed last month that then-Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, when she had actually attended Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn.

A 2020 freedom of information request to Oxford University reviewed by Salon returned no record of Cornyn graduating from or attending a regular or continuing studies program offered through the school. The university's Faculty of Law had no record of a Judicial Studies Program at all.

"The Degree Conferrals Office and Department of Continuing Education have been unable to find any record of a John Cornyn with a date of birth of 2 February 1952," the institution wrote. "The Faculty of Law is unable to confirm the existence of a Judicial Studies programme."

It appears that the claim stems from a two-week seminar jointly hosted by the National Judicial College at the University of Nevada, Reno and Florida State University Law School, which Cornyn attended in 1988, two years before his state Supreme Court run.

The advanced seminar, titled "Anglo-American Jurisprudence," was held on the Wadham College campus in Oxford. While prestigious, the seminar was not affiliated academically with the university. Oxford faculty helped lead the program, along with faculty and judges from elsewhere in England and the U.S.

The program contrasted approaches taken by American and British jurists and included visits to historic sites, such as the Old Bailey criminal court and Grendon Underwood prison, according to university records. A Texas judge in Galveston County attended the same course.

Profiles from the 1990 race also included the unsubstantiated claim that Cornyn had graduated "top of his class" at St. Mary's University School of Law. As with Oxford, this claim does not seem to appear in the public record beyond Coryn's 1990 state Supreme Court run. The school would only confirm that Cornyn had graduated in 1977.

Neither claim appears in the biography on Cornyn's Senate website. However, Cornyn's misrepresentation of academic settings has apparently followed him into his 2020 campaign: In August, he ran an ad touting his commitment to safely reopening schools in the Lone Star state, which used stock footage of a classroom halfway around the world in Estonia. Unlike in Texas, COVID-19 was scarce in the European country at the time.

The Cornyn campaign did not reply to Salon's request for comment.

By Roger Sollenberger

Roger Sollenberger was a staff writer at Salon (2020-21). Follow him on Twitter @SollenbergerRC.

MORE FROM Roger Sollenberger

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Elections Elections 2020 Gop John Cornyn Oxford Politics Reporting Republicans Senate Texas