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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Our special tour of the Supreme Court

MarthaAn update from Martha, a first-year student planning majors in accounting and political science:

Thanks to Steve Wermiel, we were able to go on a special tour of the Supreme Court building today. We not only had our own personal tour guide, but we also got to go “behind the scenes” and visit a lot of places that the public never gets to see except in pictures. We were not allowed to take pictures of the library and the courtroom; however, the security guard was kind enough to allow us to take our pictures in the doorway of the courtroom, something that most people never get to do. We even got to go inside two of the conference rooms where the justices discuss their decisions on cases. Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s piano was inside one of them, and I was itching to sit down and play it!

Martha2.jpg The Supreme Court library was incredible – by far the most beautiful law library I’ve ever seen. And to think that the Court’s collection is so huge that the building contains only some of the books in that enormous collection! I think that the library and the courtroom itself were the two things that impressed me the most. We got to stand at the podium where lawyers stand and argue their cases before the Court, and I was amazed at the podium’s close proximity to the justices. Imagine how intimidating it would be to stand there and try to make a convincing argument while staring Chief Justice Roberts and Associate Justices Scalia and Kennedy right in the eyes! Just standing at the podium and adjusting it to the proper height with the little crank on the side (because no one is allowed to touch the microphones – not even the lawyers themselves) was awe-inspiring in itself.

Martha3.jpg After the tour was over, we plundered the gift shop (buying what we took, of course) before heading back to the library for our third day of research. I went through about 15 cases today and was successful at finding a lot of Black’s comments on free speech. I feel like I’ve struck buried treasure every time that I find a scribbled note on the side of an opinion draft, such as “this settles clear and present danger” or “I agree with this opinion because it does not say that the Court is entitled to use the clear and present danger test.” That’s when the hours of sifting through pages and pages of material really pay off.

In photos: At the Supreme Court (right), and our group inside the manuscript reading room at the Library of Congress.

The research becomes easier with practice, and not all of the cases have five folders of material to sort through like Bridges v. California did. I was especially fascinated by the Brandenburg v. Ohio case, which was a 9-0 decision, because there were at least two dozen memos from various justices to each other bargaining for votes with phrases such as “please join me in this opinion,” or even “if you join with me in this opinion, I will join with you on your opinion in ___ v. ____ .” Then, the justices sent replies stating that they would join, but only if one particular part of the opinion was modified or deleted. The result was that all the justices eventually came up with an opinion that was less strongly worded than the original, but that they unanimously agreed to.

We had learned about the Court’s bargaining techniques during class and through the books that we read about the Court this semester, but it was still quite fascinating to actually see an example of what we learned in the shaping of an actual case. This trip has definitely made the things we learned in class come to life in an unforgettable way, and I am already sad that we will be leaving on Saturday. One thing is for sure, I will be coming back on my own sometime to study the justices in greater detail … I’m an official Supreme Court nerd now!

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