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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My favorite Chief Justice

vanessa.jpgAn update from Vanessa, a senior majoring in public policy and economics, with minors in political science and philosophy, who is investigating why strict scrutiny was never applied to gender discrimination cases in the Supreme Court:

The intern at the Supreme Court who gave us a tour today asked, “So who’s your favorite Chief Justice?” He probably didn’t realize my answer would stick with me throughout the day, and probably throughout my life.

Everyone loves John Marshall. I admit, I love the guy, too. He’s an icon for us Supreme Court junkies. From there, people mostly went with Chiefs who furthered things like policy preferences and altered society in a way they favored. My favorite Chief Justice is my favorite for a different reason, and I am beginning to see much deeper into the judicial system than I had ever thought I would venture. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist has a special place in my heart – a surprising choice for most because they automatically connect his political views and assume I hold the same; quite the contrary actually.

I favor him because he reminds me what law, judgment and politics are about. He didn’t care about popularity or bargaining; he became the “Lone Ranger” in his day because he continuously stood up for what he honestly thought was correct according to the Constitution.

Digging deeper and deeper into the Justices’ papers, I begin to really appreciate all the effort and thought they put into their opinions. It’s not always just policy preference (although, I did find, sometimes it is), but other times, Justices genuinely disagree on how to interpret certain precedents and laws, and that causes major outcome differences.

Yesterday, I labored over five different drafts of one of O’Connor’s concurrences, and I found myself getting frustrated with her for being so picky about the opinion and the way to get to it. One little detail caused her to write a 15-page concurrence, and I needed to go through all five of the drafts to find the differences and evolution of each one. Although it is tedious work and stylistic changes angered me at times, when reflecting on it, I realized they themselves labor over these opinions because they matter. People like me study them later in history, and society changes because of it.

Our class is called “Law, Politics, and the Supreme Court,” and despite the usually negative view of politics being slimy, two-faced, and compromising, I realized politics lives everywhere – and within the Supreme Court, politics stands overall to be a very noble tool. The Justices do try to bargain and persuade people to support their opinion, but it is for a cause they truly believe in and for reasoning or logic they themselves trust to be the interpretation of our law.

With this in mind, researching the papers tends to get easier and more enjoyable despite the long hours and tedious details to comb through, because it’s the details that matter and the hours of work that make the difference. Yes, I am learning incredible amounts of information regarding my specific research topic on this trip, but I am also beginning to understand a much bigger picture outside of myself and my paper. I can read it in books, I could listen to it in class (both which happened this semester in preparation for this), but I don’t think I could have really understood and fully appreciated these lessons unless I had seen it and experienced it myself.

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