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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Let me guess: John Marshall

Amy1.jpg An update from Amy, a first-year political science and communications major, who is investigating the exclusionary rule and why it was not overturned during the Burger and Rehnquist courts despite consistent Republican appointments to the Supreme Court:

Yesterday was simply amazing. For one thing, the weather was perfect. As soon as we left the hotel, I could tell that the day was going to be “one of those spring break days.” There was a slight breeze, just enough to stir some life into the air. The sun was shining, the sky was clear and blue, and the cherry trees were just beginning to bloom. If we’re lucky, the blossoms will get here before we leave around noon on Saturday.

We left the hotel earlier than usual on Thursday because we were going to tour the Supreme Court. Because of a sick customer on the Metro, we were forced to take a different route from the one we usually took. Luckily, Martha was able to guide us from train to train. We ended up getting to the library earlier than usual. As soon as we dropped our stuff off, we headed over to the Marble Palace. We were lucky enough to get a private VIP tour of the Supreme Court building, getting access to rooms usually off limits to visitors.

We started at the statue of John Marshall, then wound our way up to the Great Hall. From there, we visited the court room, two conference rooms, and the library. The architecture throughout was simply gorgeous. The tour guide said that the architect wanted the building to be “a temple of justice,” and it was just that. Impressive white marble columns lined the walls, star bursts and arabesque flowers covered the ceilings, friezes stretched from wall to wall. The symbolism imbued in every aspect of the design was beautiful and thought-provoking.

Visitors used to walk up the front steps to the great hall to enter the building. But in the past few years, fears about security have restricted access to the Supreme Court. Now, all visitors must go through a vigorous screening process at one of the side doors. That development was truly unfortunate because the great hall was made to wow visitors as they entered this palace of justice.

Right in the back of the great hall is the court room. According to the tour guide, it was designed to be the “heart” of the building. Accordingly, the room was swathed in red velvet, crimson brocade, and scarlet coverings. Even the columns were made of a dusty red marble imported from Europe. Friezes near the ceiling depicted important lawgivers of the past including Hammurabi, Moses, Confucius, and, of course, John Marshall (the Court is obsessed with Marshall). As we left the room, we were able to stand at the lawyers’ podium, not 5 feet from the Justices’ bench. I can only imagine how intimidating it is to present your case with Roberts, Scalia, and all the other Justices staring down their noses at you.

The conference rooms were equally beautiful. Ornate chandeliers, gifts from Switzerland, dangled from the ceiling. High, looming windows let in the sunlight, filling the room with light. Supposedly, the Justices used to complain about the dark when they were working out of the basement of Congress. They wanted light in their new home … and they got it. The tour guide directed our attention to the adjacent court yard. He asked us if we could spot the animals depicted in the architecture. We spotted the lions near the roof easily enough. The owls at the top of the column were a little harder. Quail pointed out the little turtles at the corners of the lampposts’ bases. “Aww, turtle feet,” commented Prof. Kobylka.

From there, we headed to the library, a beautiful, open room lined with row upon row of shelves. Even VIP groups aren’t allowed to completely enter the room, so we could only survey the library from a corner behind a glass barrier. Regardless, the rooms was amazing. Despite the size of the library, only a fraction of the books are held there, even after they built a second deck, doubling the shelf space of the library. The rest of the collection is housed in adjacent storage areas. In the past, Justices would donate parts of their personal libraries to the Court library, but the librarians have been respectfully advising recent Justices to keep their books. The thought’s appreciated, but … no.

As the tour wound to a close, our tour guide told us about the basketball court above the court room. Appropriately nicknamed “the highest court in the land,” the area had been an empty storage space before it was remodeled. According to Prof. Kobylka, the only justice who really put it to good use was White. He would play basketball with the clerks, supposedly quite aggressively. “And I mean, what are you going to do? You wanna drive?! Well, um, ok, go for it!” Kobylka humorously acted out the clerks avoiding White on the court. “And of course, O’Connor desecrated it. She led exercise classes in it,” Kobylka went on to say.

At last, we wandered into the fabled gift shop. I personally decided not to buy anything, but most of my classmates let loose. Nearly everyone bought a Supreme Court teddy. A few people purchased mugs, ties, and other odds and ends. We did get to exit through the front doors. Walking out of the great hall onto the steps was a heady experience. A combination of the perfect weather, the height of the stairs, and the companionship of friends made the entire scene perfect.

We bombarded some poor girl with our cameras and took several group photos. As we walked down the stairs, we got some great shots of Kobylka smoking his pipe and talking on his cell phone on the marble steps. If you had told me he was a Justice, going out after a long day of hearing cases, I would have believed you. Finally, weighed down with treasures from the gift shop, we headed back to the library for another grueling day of research.

When we left around 5, we were met by Prof. Kobylka’s son (“Your angel of surprise” – April to Prof. Kobylka) at the door. He had been visiting his friend in Baltimore and they’d decided to drop in for a visit and some dinner. So the group headed over to Bullfeathers for a rowdy St. Patrick’s day dinner and some of the best onion rings I’ve ever had. Thursday was, by far, the most exciting day thus far.

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