Political Science in Washington, 2017

Associate Professor of Political Science Joe Kobylka and the students in his Honors Program class “The Supreme Court Seminar” are spending six days in the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., doing research in the papers of former Supreme Court Justices. Each student has developed a unique research topic, question, and design, and will use the justices’ papers to find evidence to help answer the question and write a culminating original research paper.

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Another Fascinating Day

An update from Amanda O., a first-year studying history and political science:

Today was particularly special because our class was given a special tour of the Supreme Court beyond the gates of the public. Professor Kobylka even arranged the Clerk of the Court to talk to our class and answer our questions in the Nan Rehnquist Tea Room, the official meeting place of the spouses of the justices.

There we were able to ask about various aspects of Court life: how emails are affecting the traditional paper communication between the justices, how oral arguments affect the decision-making process, even the probability that a case will be heard by the justices (it’s only about .00014 percent, or 70ish out of 50,000,000ish of all civil and criminal cases heard in the U.S. every year!). From there we met with Jerry the docent who took us to the West Conference Room adorned with grand portraits of Taft, Warren, and Rehnquist among other chief justices. For our last stop, we were able to catch a peak of “the most beautiful room in Washington,” in the words of former Justice David Souter. This room, the private library of the Supreme Court, is a beautiful oak paneled room containing volumes of the entirety of U.S. legal history. Although we were not permitted beyond the viewing area of the library, I cannot help but think that one day I might be a member of the American Bar Association and research under the ornate ceiling of that very library.

After our morning out at the Court, it was back to the grind in the Madison Building of the Library of Congress. Today I looked into the papers of Justice Harry Blackmun. I know it sounds odd to say this, but looking at the personal files of the justices has given me a friendly familiarity with them. I know their handwriting and their shorthand. I have read their scrambled notes to each other,  and their most poised official Court opinions. I know how they sign their name on memos, and how they respond when they are miffed by a colleague. I even know how their clerks think, and how these clerks have influenced the thinking of the justices. It all comes together in a strange way to give me a sense of intimacy with the community of the Court that is hard to see from the cold marble facade of the building.

The most interesting thing I learned from Blackmun’s notes today was that he graded attorneys when they spoke in front of the bench. Justice Ginsburg, before she was a Supreme Court justice, served as a litigant for the American Civil Liberties Union. When she argued Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld (1975) before the Court on behalf of the ACLU and its client Mr. Wiesenfeld, Blackmun wrote in his oral argument notes that she was a “very precise female” and gave her a C+ on her presentation of her argument. This kind of humor animates the humanity in the justices, something I appreciate as a student.

All in all, I think it was a strong day of touring, questions and research. There are only two more days left in the papers so it is about that time when I am starting to feel the crunch! Still, standing knee-deep in the primary documents of history is an experience so transformative I cannot wait to get back to it.

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