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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Write, Edit, Repeat

An update from Greg G., a sophomore majoring in statistical sciences, and minoring in computer science and history:

For all of us on the trip, our ability to easily sift out information that’s unlikely to help us and picking out useful quotes, memos, and snippets of conversation between the Justices has grown leaps and bounds over the past week. After reviewing thousands of pages, it’s easy to become a little numb to the material passing through your hands. One thing that’s easy to miss after the shell shock of research hits you is the sheer number of drafts that the Justices go through in preparing their final opinions.

Take Justice William O. Douglas as an example: An incredible scholar, hugely successful lawyer, and long-time judge on the highest court of the land. Despite the credentials, his drafts often bleed red and blue ink with all the markups. Below you can see his letter to Justice Black explaining his struggle to articulate his viewpoint and several pages with markups.

Most of the Justices in almost all the cases we’ve read spend this amount of effort hammering out an opinion worth reading. The immense time and energy that is consumed by the constant reworking of drafts is a strong testimony to the effort that goes into making anything of value, not just a court opinion. It’s a relief in some ways to see extremely intelligent legal experts going through the same painstaking process of editing that most college students have experienced. I think it’s worth pointing out that the quality of opinions aren’t really a function of the Justice’s intelligence. Smarts play a role in their success, but for many of the Justices I would imagine that what really allowed them to stand above their peers was the intense effort and focus that went into preparation and tightening their arguments and writings.

I guess editing isn’t just something intelligent people do, it’s how people make their writing intelligent. Next time I’m stuck in the library going over the same paper over and over, I’ll sit back, relax, and remind myself that there’s no easy path to good writing, whether it’s a Supreme Court opinion or a college paper.

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