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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Critics of the Court

An update from Alex M., a first-year student studying political science, philosophy and mathematics:

It is well known that the Supreme Court’s inevitable partnership with controversial topics usually leads to personal attacks against the presiding Justices. However, I came across one such personal attack earlier today in Hugo Black’s papers that is simply too interesting to ignore.

Engel v Vitale was a 7-2 school prayer case in which the court ruled that a voluntary prayer before class constituted an establishment of religion. Thus, the school board’s prayer was struck down as unconstitutional and similar local policies across the nation were also voided by the new ruling. The decision was wildly unpopular as many Americans found it to be plainly anti-religious rather than strictly neutral. Justice Black was a particularly large target for criticism on the court for many reasons. He was an easily recognizable figure on the court, in fact, by the time Engel was announced he had been on the court for 25 years. Additionally, it was well known that the former Alabama senator was a Baptist himself, and religious Alabamians in particular were outraged and felt a sense of betrayal.

This letter was sent to Hugo Black by an associate pastor.

This cartoon was attached to the letter.

By quoting at length from a previous decision about the predominantly Christian culture of America, Mr. Robert Thornton exemplifies the contempt of a majority of the nation by calling the court “anti-Christian”. Regardless of one’s stance on the veracity of this charge, the fact remains that these decisions by nine Justices can potentially generate political fervor and popular unrest.

The Supreme Court is so fascinating and worthy of study because, in part, the justices are both members of the branch furthest from the public and its politics while also still very vulnerable to censure from their fellow Americans. The ability to examine this odd role of the court firsthand with primary documents in the Library of Congress is a rare opportunity and makes this seminar all the more valuable.

Even though our week here in DC is almost up, I feel that I’ve just scratched the surface!

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