Supreme Court Spring2011

As part of the political science course “Law, Politics and the Supreme Court,” students and Political Science Associate Professor Joe Kobylka are spending spring break 2011 in Washington, D.C. The students are conducting research on Supreme Court cases at the Library of Congress.

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A discovery about segregation

Catherine.jpg An update from Catherine, a junior English and public policy major, who is investigating the development of various forms of scrutiny and case analysis over time in the Supreme Court pertaining to the civil rights of African-Americans, women and homosexuals:

Day 4 in D.C. will be hard to top. Despite a growing fear in most of us that there just aren’t enough hours in the day to do all the research we need (and want) to do, the time spent this morning away from the Library of Congress in the Supreme Court was spectacular.

The Supreme Court has a way of making you feel both connected to history in a huge, magical way and simultaneously making you think to the future and what history is still to be made. Having a great tour guide made the morning all the more special; a student himself (with a fabulous internship …), his knowledge ensured that we did not miss any detail no matter how small – from little stone turtles holding up lampposts in the courtyard to the amazing amount of deference the Court still pays to John Marshall today.

The courtroom where oral arguments are heard is pretty amazing – we each took a turn standing at the podium where arguments are made with the Chief Justice only a few feet away, but the nerdy part of me fell in love with the library. The room is huge, comfortable, ornate, and has a beautiful ceiling that exists as one of the few unrestored pieces in the Court. I could live in there.

Although leaving the Supreme Court was a bummer, I was soon cheered up upon re-entering the Library of Congress. Yesterday did not provide me with the amount of material I hoped, but today more than made up for that. While I came to D.C. expecting to be most impressed by the papers of Justice Brennan, Justice Blackmun, and Chief Justice Earl Warren (three of my favorite Supreme Court justices), it was surprisingly the papers of Justice Robert Jackson in Brown v. Board of Education that really blew me away today.

For one, I learned something new. I came across a memo titled “A Random Thought on the Segregation Cases.” As I read the memo, which ultimately declared that Plessy v. Ferguson should be upheld because segregation is not an extreme case that commands intervention from individually “liberal” justices, I came away wondering, “What smug guy is trying to pass this off on Jackson?” A signed “whr” and some help from Dr. Kobylka answered my question. This memo was written by Chief Justice William Rehnquist during his clerkship for Justice Jackson. I was disappointed in Rehnquist but also excited to have such a cool piece of history in my hands. There were also tons of letters written from people both in favor of segregation and in favor of de-segregation – each side equally passionate and pleading; many brought tears to my eyes.

All in all it was by far the coolest day I’ve had so far on the trip, and I hope for an equally cool day tomorrow!

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