An update from Sarah, a senior political science major and human rights minor who is investigating John Paul Stevens’ jurisprudential evolution on the death penalty during his tenure on the Supreme Court:
I’m new to blogging, and since others have written depicting our activities throughout the day, my approach, at least on this one, is a bit different. I should say that I’m rather nerdtastically excited about all things Supreme Court and/or Constitution related, so while I wasn’t sure what to expect from this trip, of course I thought it would be a great experience. I did not, however, expect it to be as enlightening or emotional as it has been thus far for me.
It may sound as if I am stating the obvious here, but the members of the Supreme Court are more than just a government institution. They are nine individuals who have to work both together and within their respective interpretations of laws, issues and the Constitution to decide important questions that impact the nation. This burden is one for which I feel our research opportunity is giving me a much greater appreciation.
While much of what I have come across in the files is humorous, such as a letter to Justice Blackmun describing him as a student’s “favorite Justice, except for maybe Justice Stevens,” and Blackmun’s forwarding note to Stevens stating that he was glad to play “second fiddle” to him – clearly the justices have fun and enjoy each other – the dedication and effort that go into making these decisions is readily apparent.
Today was my second day of poring through Blackmun’s files; I find that I have become familiar with his handwriting and can decipher some of it (no small feat!), and it is fun to see the ways in which his personality is translated through his notes on cases. He was a stickler for spelling and grammar, and circulated drafts are littered with question marks, exclamation points and comments such as, “So what?” scrawled in pencil – what a funny little man! Conversely, several of the letters and notes he has in his file, expressing support or dismay for death penalty decisions rendered by the Court, brought tears to my eyes, as did the often brief but sincere responses Blackmun (or his clerks) sent.
Stephen Wermiel, author of Justice Brennan: Liberal Champion (who quite kindly signed my copy of his book – many thanks, Mr. Wermiel!), spoke to us over dinner last evening, and several of his points stayed with me as I worked throughout our second day. An obstacle when using these papers for research purposes is remembering that while the information creates a picture of what was going on between the justices on the Court, it’s not a complete picture. It’s a single person’s perspective of the Court’s happenings, and it is important to realize that while it may be an accurate portrayal of a particular justice’s experience, it does not necessarily reflect the experiences of the other justices – an important insight to keep in mind!
I’m sure there is a more eloquent way to express this, but this is absolutely the coolest academic opportunity I’ve ever had. In about seven hours, we’ll be touring the Supreme Court – an adventure, indeed! In true nerdtastic form, for the week at least, I’m living the dream …