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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Rich week of research

An update from Taylor, a sophomore majoring in political science and Spanish who is conducting research on school prayer decisions during the 1980s and early 1990s:

I’m back in Dallas, and I can’t believe it was already a week ago that we were checking in to get our readers’ cards at the Library of Congress.

Eric and Taylor with Justice Blackmun's portrait

Eric and Taylor with Justice Blackmun’s portrait

The second half of the week was just as busy as the first half. Thursday started out with some more research in the Madison building before we set out on our tour of the Supreme Court. From the outside, the Court is truly imposing (even if we couldn’t see the front because they were renovating the marble). On the inside, it was enlightening to sit in the actual courtroom and see the place where all the decisions I had been researching were argued before the justices. The opportunity to see the courtroom, the conference rooms, and the library gave me more of an appreciation for how the Court functions as a governmental institution.

After the tour, I found Harry Blackmun’s portrait for a photo-op since I had been working through his papers all week. Before the trip began, I read 13 cases concerning religion in schools spanning from 1980 to 1994, and I planned to look into the files for all 13 cases. Fortunately, Blackmun’s files are dense with multiple drafts of all the majority opinions, dissents, and concurrences along with his conference notes and personal musings. All of this information let me map out the timeline of each case’s decision-making process while tracking the development in the justices’ ideologies.

Blackmun might be my favorite justice because he kept such thorough notes on every case, which allowed me to flesh out the dynamics of the court so much more than the final opinions show. Although this kept me busy reading and scanning all week, by Saturday afternoon I was finishing up my last case right on time to make our 6:30 flight home.
As I wheeled my last batch of boxes up to the front desk of the reading room, I realized how unique this entire experience was and how privileged I am to be able to spend a week digging through original Supreme Court documents alongside established researchers like Linda Greenhouse (she was nice enough to take a photo with the class).

Working with primary sources such as these for a term paper is something I did not even know was possible for undergraduate students; it gave me great insight into some of the methods political science researchers use when they investigate different areas of politics and the law.

Now that we’re back in Dallas, the work continues as I analyze all the information I found in D.C. and synthesize it with the secondary literature to finish my term paper. Spring Break 2013 was an unforgettable experience with a group of people I will never forget, and I am looking forward to seeing the results of their research as we finish out the semester.

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