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.

The last box …

An update from Alexander, a sophomore psychology and political science major, who is conducting research on the effect of threats to national security on the judicial decision-making process:

Wow, I just sent in my last judicial paper box request card. (For those of you wondering, it’s for Harold Burton’s papers on the Youngstown Sheet & Tube v. Sawyer (1952) case.) 70 boxes later, here we are at the end of the trip.

How can I possibly sum up this unbelievable experience? For the last six days, I have eaten, slept, and breathed nothing but Supreme Court Justice papers (and coffee), and now it seems completely bizarre to consider leaving this place behind and returning to SMU where I have to learn about things that aren’t Supreme Court Justices.

With my hands streaked with pencil lead, my computer crammed full of draft opinions and judicial memoranda, and already missing the Capitol dome on the horizon of our morning trek to the Library, I feel overwhelmed with all I’ve learned and done over the past few days. Some highlights:

  • The unbelievable Library staff
  • A walk down the National Mall after our last dinner in D.C.
  • Brisk morning walks into the Library, buzzing about who’s getting who’s papers
  • “Blueberry” waffles at the Ballston Comfort Inn
  • Morning runs with Kristine, Professor Kobylka, and the rabbits
  • Frantic looks on classmates’ faces during the last 30 minutes of our stay in the Library
  • Learning more about the 3 branches of government, and what they all do
  • Seeing Chief Justice Roberts in the Supreme Court Building
  • Snap-chats after 8-hour research binges
  • Rickety Metro rides (don’t forget your pills!)
  • Meeting Linda Greenhouse, a prominent judicial scholar
  • Justice Harry Blackmun’s colorful commentary in the margins of his papers
  • Smothering our problems in pizza, milkshakes, and hamburgers (and ice cream, and pasta, and anything else the Madison Café threw our way)

It’s difficult to asses our time in D.C. because time has, for the most part, stood completely still while rushing past us. The following weeks will be filled with readjustment to people who don’t care about the Establishment Clause, catching up on schoolwork, and trying to make my classmates realize that my Spring Break blew theirs out of the water, no question about it. I’ve grown closer to my class of researchers, learned more than I’ve learned in most classes anywhere, and been more exhausted than most days, but the journey doesn’t end here, as we now return to Dallas to put all of our research together into something truly incredible.

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Our group in the Manuscript Reading Room

Our group in the manuscript reading room in the Library of Congress

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Connecting with Justice Black

An update from Jacqueline, a junior majoring in political science and psychology who is conducting research on Justice Black’s views on expression and the First Amendment:

After catching a 6 a.m. flight, navigating the metro, and gallivanting around the Library of Congress, I’ve learned that this Spring Break will be unlike any other. We have the unbelievable opportunity to research the Supreme Court justices. And I’m not talking about glancing at textbooks or the Internet – this is the real deal. We get to hold in our hands the actual handwritten memos and private conference notes that circulated among the justices.

Supreme Court lovin’

Each morning I eat a scrumptious breakfast of fruit loops and Comfort Inn waffles. Then, we trek to the metro like a small army with Kobylka as our fearless leader. Finally, it’s time to dig into the papers. Somehow, eight or so hours in the library flies by incredibly fast… especially when you get to examine documents such as Thomas Jefferson’s macaroni maker model and letters from accused witches requesting bail.

I’m also becoming best friends with Justice Hugo Black – he lets me read all of his birthday cards, fan mail, and draft opinions. Sometimes his handwriting strains our friendship… but we’re starting to get along swimmingly. I’ve already found some interesting material that will help to explain how Justice Black’s views on free speech evolved over his 34 years on the Court.

These first two days have been exhausting and exhilarating. I can’t wait for the rest of the week. Most important, I can’t wait to tour the Supreme Court! I’m hoping for an encounter with Scalia, but taking a picture next to his portrait may have to suffice. We’ll just have to see.

Sweet dreams, D.C.! It’s gonna be a long day tomorrow hanging out with Justice Black and the gang.

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There and back again: A tale from the LOC

An update from Hannah, a political science and Spanish major who is conducting research on the Supreme Court’s change in commerce clause jurisprudence since 1937:

Well, friends, here I am again, back in the Library of Congress to spend my spring break reading through the justices’ papers – and I wouldn’t have it any other way. So far the trip has been just as amazing as the one two years ago. Our schedule is essentially the same as last time – 8:30 to 5 in the library poring over papers and then relaxing and preparing for the next day in the evenings. While going on the trip a second time might sound redundant, it has truly been a new experience for me. I have gotten to know a whole new set of classmates and am exploring new issues in the papers.

Today I got to go through some of Justice Blackmun’s folders for the first time, which was fascinating albeit a bit overwhelming. His papers are very helpful to my research due to the fact that Blackmun took copious notes and kept everything related to each case.

In addition to finding new things in the library, I have enjoyed bonding with my peers in the class (shout-out to my roomies for not judging me about my creepy gloves this time!) They are all researching such interesting topics, and it is fun to learn from them as they go through the papers as well.

OK, friends, I am headed to bed so I can be sure to be well rested for our tour of the Supreme Court tomorrow!

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An intellectual feast

An update from Austin, a sophomore majoring in economics, public policy and political science, with a minor in law and legal reasoning, who is conducting research on the differing “absolutisms” of Justice Black and Justice Douglas’ First Amendment Freedom of Expression jurisprudence:

When asked why he wanted to serve on the Supreme Court, Robert Bork responded, “it would be an intellectual feast.” This nicely sums up why my classmates and I have decided to engage in scholarly research over Spring Break.

I have had Dr. Kobylka every semester I have been in college – which is a testament either to his greatness or my insanity. When this opportunity presented itself, I never had to second-guess forgoing Spring Break to partake in such a unique experience. What better way to learn about government than to immerse oneself in the resources of the Nation’s capital? The environment certainly isn’t as relaxing as lounging at the beach, but is, in a whole different sense of the word, exciting. Who needs a break anyway? Learning never ceases.

I have had two classes focusing on the Supreme Court before this one – Civil Liberties and Constitutional Law. However, this one changes the ballgame. Prior to this class my scholarship has been confined to the final Supreme Court opinions and secondary literature. Now, I am conducting firsthand research that some law students and political scientists never get to perform. My research concerns the differing “absolutisms” of Justice Black and Justice Douglas’ First Amendment Freedom of Expression jurisprudence.

The reading room in the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress is one of the most amazing rooms I have ever been in. Around the top edge of the dome room stand statues representing some of the greatest minds from various disciplines of all time. Among them are Plato, Shakespeare, Moses, Beethoven, and Herodotus.

Our research is conducted in the Manuscript Reading Room which, lacking the aesthetic grandeur of the Main Reading Room, ushers in a whole different sense of awe. In it an ordinary citizen, such as myself, can search through thousands of original documents. The only requirement is a Library of Congress reading card (which, somewhat ironically, is not considered a government issue identification card); I will surely be putting the card to use once again this summer.

Handling the very papers the Supremes used to debate and deliberate gives a unique perspective into the approaches and personalities of the Justices, as well as how the Court functions. We have realized some Justices keep better records than others, and some write considerably more legibly than others (what are you writing, Douglas?!).

Rifling through this history makes the eight-hour day seem more like two; indeed, there is a certain adrenaline rush in the active search and discovery of information. But after leaving the Library there is also a crash. Sitting in a room reading all day may not seem strenuous, but it is absolutely exhausting. Every night (save for tonight…so far) I have come back from the Library of Congress and crashed for a few hours in the hotel room. Then I wake up, read and organize for a few hours, and go back to bed for the next wake-up call.

The rest of the week includes more research – much more – and some nice breaks, including a tour of the Supreme Court and the Capitol (the latter a result of the sequester’s role in shutting down White House tours). I speak for the whole class when I say we truly appreciate the opportunity to be here. We’d like to thank SMU, the Honors Program, the Richter Foundation, and Dr. Kobylka.

Three days down, three to go. Until next time…

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Homecoming with a mission

An update from Julianna, a sophomore majoring in business who is conducting research on the exclusionary rule:

We’ve just finished up our third day on The Hill and I can’t believe it’s Wednesday night already!

After our 6:30 a.m., Monday morning flight out of DFW, our class touched down in Washington DC at about 9:30 a.m. local time. There we were, the 13 of us plus Kobylka, loitering in the Reagan International Airport terminal disoriented, excited, groggy, and in much need of caffeine.

I stepped off that plane and was immediately smacked in the face with sweet, sweet nostalgia.

This was welcoming. This was familiarity. This was home.

In December of 2012, my family and I packed up our home of 12 years and moved from the D.C. metropolitan area to Fort Worth, TX. I never would have guessed that all it’d take was a grimy Metro ride to remind me just how much I’ve missed being here! The D.C. that I arrived at on Monday was both overwhelmingly familiar and extraordinarily novel. But I wasn’t back in the northeast to go back to the ‘burbs of MoCo. I came here with a new group of great people, and we came with a mission.

After navigating through some minor public transportation blunders and checking into our hotel, the herd of us made our way to the Capital to get our official Library of Congress Researcher cards! We had arrived. And to top it all off, because of our brand-spankin’-new library cards, we got to march our way into the Library of Congress’ Jefferson building and peruse its collection! Not only is the sheer volume of material housed within its walls awe-inspiring, but the architecture of the building itself is breathtaking. D.C. knows how to stay classy, ow ow ;)       

Tuesday was when the party really started. And boy did it start early. After a brief orientation, our research began. You really don’t fully know what to expect until you find yourself suddenly thrown into the Manuscript Reading Room. I was elbow deep in the manuscripts of Justice Brennan and Blackmun sifting through cases dealing with the exclusionary rule. I’ll spare y’all the nitty gritty details, but my research analyzes why the Nixon and Reagan years didn’t bring about the extinction of the exclusionary rule, even though the two presidents had successfully stocked a conservative leaning Supreme Court with their appointments. Today, I was so into my cases that I could hardly believe I’d been at it for about eight hours!

Besides how much I appreciate this rare opportunity to do this level of research, I’m really happy to have gotten to know this energized group of people! Between Starbucks runs, ice cream runs, dinners and emergency runs to Payless to buy me a new pair of shoes (a mishap on the Metro led to the death of my only pair of flats,) I’ve really enjoyed getting to know everyone better than I would have if we were all just in class together back in Dallas.

We’re halfway through now. I can’t wait for our tour of the Supreme Court tomorrow!

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Living and learning

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 can’t believe that we’ve already been in D.C. for two days and I’m just now getting a free moment to blog about all the things that have happened so far.

Right now, I’m waiting for my next batch of justice papers to be wheeled out on their carts in the Madison building (I know it sounds strange, but the Manuscript Reading Room at the Library of Congress has a lot of rules to preserve the collections so future researchers can study the documents). When the papers get here, I’ll go back to reading Harry Blackmun’s notes, drafts, and memorandum on the school prayer cases that took place in the 1980s and early 1990s while Ronald Reagan was in office leading a movement to bring conservative values back to American homes and schools.

So far I’ve learned that there are more politics that go into the decisions than the final opinions show, that each justice has his or her own style of communication within the court, and that Blackmun has very small, very illegible handwriting, but takes great notes when you can read them (thanks for letting me borrow your magnifying glass, Professor Kobylka).

But I’ve learned about more than just the Supreme Court and its Justices; within hours of being in D.C., I figured out that I have a surprising number of things in common with Hannah, that you’re supposed to stand on the right side of the escalators in the metro because the left is for people walking up, and that it’s pretty easy to get motion sickness while on the trains. Thankfully, everyone on the trip is good at giving me reminders to take anti-motion sickness pills before we leave to explore the city in between our time in the library.

So far, we’ve seen the inside of the reading room in the Jefferson building of the Library of Congress (the sheer number of books covering so many subjects was overwhelming) and the outside of the Supreme Court building, and gotten to know each other better over dinner at Bullfeathers and Uncle Julio’s. I’m looking forward to our tour of the Supreme Court tomorrow and Congress on Friday; they should be good breaks to help me recharge so I can read more school prayer cases. This trip has been jam-packed, but after two days of working in the library, I’m starting to feel more like a researcher – I can’t wait to dig into a new case tomorrow morning!

Taylor and Alex researching Harry Blackmun and Hugo Black’s papers

Our group at the Supreme Court

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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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Running with the best of them

An update from Alexander, a sophomore psychology and political science major:

As we left our second day at the Library of Congress, I was overcome with the most surreal feeling. I felt like a graduate student, as if I were some sort of imposter in the scholarly world of research, journal articles and book writing, and far away from my simple undergraduate problems. Then it fully dawned on me that I had spent the day searching through 50-year-old Supreme Court Justice papers to answer a question I’d spent the past two months designing. This was, is, legitimate research.

Here we are in the thick of it all, running with the best of them.

Everything has been nonstop since our early “before the sun” departure Monday morning. It would be easy to say that it’s exhausting, but honestly it’s so much more amazing than it is tiring. We leave for the Library every morning to arrive as soon as it opens and we stay until they kick us out (technically, they use a bell, but the message received is the same).

The second we enter that reading room, everything else just gets checked at the front door. Our brains are nothing but case law and Justice dynamics. Each new box brims with clues and facts that give us better insight into what influences and sustains the judicial decision-making process.

I remember opening my first box on Ex Parte Quirin from Justice Hugo Black. Lifting out his original, handwritten notes, I quickly looked around to be sure I was even allowed to do so.

These papers should be on display in a museum. They are actual personal papers, and we just get to rifle through them like each box is just another filing cabinet. We get to search through decades of inter-Justice memos, hate mail, correspondence, original opinion drafts and much more at our own pace without any interruption or lurking librarian. Everything is so real that it’s like each Justice is sitting there with you, annotating each opinion. Privilege is an understatement.

We detox each day with dinner (Bullfeathers by the Capitol South Metro stop is now a personal favorite) and heated discussion as everyone cranes to talk about the incredible things they found that day. It’s a group unlike any other I’ve been a part of before. This research isn’t an obligation for a class; it’s a personal source of excitement for each and every student. Beyond the scholarly group bond, we’ve already grown into such a tight-knit group in only three days in the Capitol. Inside jokes abound. We eat together, run together and sit together all day in the reading room of the library, often turning to each other to hiss, “Look at this!” and share some new incredible piece of background information we’ve found. I can already feel our time coming to a close, and don’t want to think about having to leave this place behind.

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Opening boxes and diving into history

An update from Eric, a sophomore majoring in political science and public policy who is conducting research on Justice Blackmun’s Fourth Amendment jurisprudence:

How can you trade a week of relaxation and sun for six long days of research? This question has been something I’ve had to answer all semester. Of course, the answer is simple, “How could you pass up a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to study from the personal papers of Supreme Court Justices?”

Leading up to this week in the capital, I had no idea what to expect. Sure I had a general idea of what the paper would entail, but it wasn’t until I opened that first box and dove right into Justice Blackmun’s cases dealing with the 4th Amendment, that I finally realized the gravity of the situation. I was holding history.

Not only has this research provided me with more knowledge about the court, but it has also shed light on the Justices themselves. It is incredible how one sentence here, or one word there, can generate so much feedback from the public. The fact that Justices receive both praise and hate (but mostly hate) through mail just shows how the nine of them shoulder such awe-inspiring responsibility.

After our first two full days of research, Tuesday and Wednesday, I look at all of the opinions, memos, and personal correspondence I’ve digested and start to feel excited about how much I’ve accomplished. This feeling, however, is fleeting. After I see what I have done, I realize all I have left to do and how much time I have in which to do it.

This sudden realization kick-starts a brief sense of panic, but that doesn’t last long, with three more days to look at papers, and tours of both the Capitol Building and the Supreme Court in the horizon, it’s hard to feel anything but excitement.

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