Political Science in Washington, 2013

As part of the University Honors Program political science course “Law, Politics and the Supreme Court,” students and Political Science Associate Professor Joe Kobylka are spending spring break 2013 in Washington, D.C. The students are conducting research on Supreme Court cases at the Library of Congress.

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The humans behind the law

An update from Michael, a junior majoring in philosophy and political science:

As I skimmed through Justice Robert H. Jackson’s documents in the Library of Congress, I found the interactions between Justice Jackson and Justice Black particularly pertinent to my own research, but also challenging many of the preconceptions that I, and many Americans, share about the nature of the law and the Supreme Court.

Black and Jackson came to blows with one another over Black’s refusal to recuse himself in a case concerning a miners’ labor union. As it goes, Black had worked with the lead attorney for the miners’ union in a law practice when Black was still in Alabama, and had also worked with him when Black was in the Senate. Jackson felt these were grounds for recusal due to conflict of interest. But Black did not recuse himself. In the ensuing struggle, Jackson issued an opinion attempting to wash his hands (and the Court’s, for that matter) of the possibility of compromising the Court’s integrity.

It is customary for Justices to recuse themselves when there is such a conflict of interest, or perhaps if they argued a case before the Supreme Court that comes up for review. However, there are no written rules governing such behavior. It is left up to each Justice to decide whether he or she will participate in a case.

However interesting the Black-Jackson conflict is as a historical fact, more interesting is the way in which Court dynamics shape and influence the law. People assume the law is static, justice impartial and rights immutable. These strong statements might pass as good rhetoric, but fail to hold up in practice.

Black’s participation in the case led to the victory of the labor union. Had Black recused himself, the mining company would have had a chance to win the case. The outcomes of cases depend on the people who serve on the Court. Laws are dependent on those who make them and those who interpret them.

We might desire immutability and unchanging laws for any number of reasons, but if that were so, then reacting to changing environments would be exceedingly difficult. Dynamic laws and dynamic Justices are essential to the function of the state because we need human beings to make human laws for others, not the mechanistic application of rules to facts.

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