Political Science in Washington, 2015

Students in the University Honors Program political science class “The Supreme Court Seminar” are spending six days in Washington, D.C., doing original research in the papers of former Supreme Court Justices housed in the Library of Congress. Each student in the seminar has developed an independent research topic and question, and will produce a research paper.

Thanks to everyone – and then, sleep at last!

An update from Kayla, a sophomore political science and world languages major. She is studying to what extent Chief Justice Rehnquist succeeded or failed in aligning his court with his political ideology on three topics – abortion, states rights and Miranda rights:

I’m sitting in my own bed once again, and I don’t think I’ve ever been more excited about the prospect of sleep.

We have come to the conclusion of our trip to DC, and my happily ever after includes a full night’s sleep, something I have been deprived of all week. But despite my exhaustion, I come back from our class trip with a multitude of positive memories. The city itself is beautiful, with a deep sense of American history at every turn. You can breathe in the connections to the beginnings of our government and nation. The monuments dedicated to preserving the memory of our most famous and cherished institutions, leaders, and legacies fill the city with a sort of ancient and benevolent feeling of wisdom.

The research we have conducted has been amazingly insightful and precious as well. I now have an even deeper understanding of the Supreme Court. After having peered through a magnifying glass at old cursive handwriting, I have also vowed to myself that if I am ever to become a justice on the Supreme Court, I must ensure that every single piece of handwriting I ever scribble down, may it be the simplest memo to a clerk, be in the most pristine and clear fashion as possible.

I have also come much closer to my classmates in this journey. I have learned something about every single person on this trip. Jamie is the fastest walker I have ever seen. Terisha wakes up extremely early every morning to work out. Anton is amazingly durable even when doing hard research with the flu. Sydney loves Taylor Swift. Ryan wears sandals with socks every day unless he feels particularly swanky due to the influence of his beverage of choice. Lily is about as much of a morning person as me (i.e., not at all). Adam loves movies, including old classics with Audrey Hepburn. Kelsey is a bit of a germophobe and is always willing to hand out hand sanitizer. Daniel is immensely proud of his home state of Georgia and will find any and every opportunity to brag about it. Mollie is going to law school, especially since she rubbed John Marshall’s foot. Langston has three questions that he asks everyone he knows, although you don’t get to hear all of them all at once. And Kobylka actually has a human side to his personality, much to everyone’s surprise.

I have also learned something about myself. I have an unexpected passion for reading through personal and formal papers of old dead guys. I already have a few more ideas of things I would like to research about the Supreme Court should I ever go back to the Library of Congress. This will be one of those trips I never forget. It has been an amazing opportunity that I still feel so lucky to have experienced. I can’t wait to go back through all I have learned and develop my knowledge and understanding even further. However, first I’m going to sleep like a bear in hibernation.

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The long trail to the Library of Congress

2013.8.28Portraits4642An update from Jaime, a sophomore majoring in political science and English, with a creative writing emphasis. He is conducting research on the Court’s treatment of the interaction between race and the death penalty, with a focus on the evolution of legal arguments on the death penalty’s constitutionality from Maxwell v. Bishop to McCleskey v. Kemp:

“Please join me.”

The words were on translucent tissue paper, in fuzzy type that looked like the letters had been rushed off before the ink had quite dried. Held up to the ceiling light, the delicate notes revealed “Neenah Onionskin 25% cotton fiber” in loopy cursive — a Google search informed me that onionskins were used, back in the day, to make copies of typewritten carbon paper. The typewritten paper that the onionskins on my desk had copied were some of the justices’ notes to each other.

I knew that these notes tracked the Maxwell to McCleskey justices in their process of forming coalitions, joining concurrences and dissents and the majority opinions of the court as they spoke the final word on the issues at hand. Because the messages seldom said anything besides this terse request, I assumed that the writers of the opinions were asking their colleagues to join them. It wasn’t until I came across one that added on “in your excellent opinion” that I realized the truth that bore out in the way the court split. Somewhat counterintuitively, “Please join me” was not a request made by the writer trying to gain votes, but by others seeking to join the writer on their own discretion. As I went deeper into Blackmun’s and Brennan’s papers, I came across more notes that elaborated on the “joining,” qualifying their agreement with suggested edits or refusing to join certain sections. All of the notes were cc’d to the whole conference to let everyone know how matters stood, and how the decision would likely turn out.

All of the notes were in the same typeface. As one never knowing a world without the Internet with its plethora of modern fonts, I thought the across-the-board typewriter font looked archaic. It recalled the famous scene from The Shining, its frenzied repetition of “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” as I clacked madly away at my Mac keyboard, trying to get down as much material from the papers as possible before my research time was up. Spring break was coming to a close.

Having spent the week at the Library of Congress, I wasn’t overawed by the justices’ papers anymore. As with everything else, even this had fallen into routine, from the morning’s filing of the registration form to recover my reserved boxes for the day to the evening’s flipping open of my laptop on my way out the manuscript room, to prove that I wasn’t stealing any precious documents. Spending all day working was nothing now, though I stretched more and more frequently as the day wore on. However fascinating looking at the justices’ papers was and remained so, it really was work — I never got the sense that I was playing, though I interrupted the quiet of the room a couple of times with some laughs at a comment written in the margins (Blackmun wrote “Ouch!” next to a statement about imposing the death penalty for robbery,) at a clever turn of phrase, at human awkwardness, as well as brilliance. The papers in front of me were decades old, but their deliberations were fresh, and in the literary present (Blackmun’s memo to himself in Crampton v. Ohio: “I don’t know where I shall come out.”)

Someone asked Clerk of the Court Scott Harris, when my class had the valuable opportunity to meet him, whether the justices still wrote and distributed hard-copy notes, memos, and letters to each other today, in the age of the Internet. The answer, “yes” and the reason, “because of tradition.” Sitting inside the neoclassical U.S. Supreme Court Building, surrounded by hand-carved marble pillars with cores of steel beams, I thought this appropriate, despite the slight inefficiency. It was pleasant to think of future generations of students also coming to the Library of Congress, just as I have, to research the cases coming out today, and to follow the physical paper trail of the justices within sight of the building from which that trail had first begun.

My last day in Washington D.C., I put my Witherspoon v. Illinois folder back in Justice Brennan’s box and rolled the cart up to the front desk for the papers to be put back in secure storage. I flipped open my laptop to show that I had put all of the papers back and went to the cloakroom to fetch my suitcases. The cloakroom was attached to the reader registration room, where my too-short stint at the Library of Congress had started with me receiving my reader’s card five days before — a sign in the doorway declared, in all caps, that reader’s cards were provided not as souvenirs but for research only. Waiting for my classmates to move out with their bags so that I could retrieve mine, I opened my wallet and looked at my reader’s card, which I had certainly used for research but which I might also treasure as a unique souvenir from this trip. It read that it expired in March 9th, 2017, exactly two years from the day I had gotten it.

For the last time, or at least for this trip, I joined my classmates outside the library, fully intending to come back.

J1McCleskey cartoon

A pretty extreme political cartoon castigating the Justices who were in the majority in McCleskey (To be fair to the cartoonist, McCleskey is today often considered the death penalty’s Dred Scott).



A thank-you note to Justice Blackmun that misspelled his name as “Blackman,” a particularly unfortunate mistake considering that McCleskey is about how black people get the death penalty more than white people do. (Photos by Jaime/SMU Adventures)



A hilariously vicious letter to Justice Blackmun attacking him for his dissent in McCleskey.


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Meeting the Justices through their words

convocationAn update from Daniel, a first-year management science and economics major. He is conducting research on the expanding notion of the Equal Protection clause through the Reapportionment Cases:

It’s hard to believe we’re back in Dallas already. It seemed improbable during our first eight-hour day in the Manuscript Room, but losing track of time in the Justices’ papers came more easily than I would have imagined.

There’s something to be said about holding a piece of history in your hands. Glimpses of a Justice’s personality would come out after going through numerous folders of memos and letters. Harry Blackmun had an incessant need to correct the grammar and spelling of every document he came across. Hugo Black kept both fan and hate mail alike but only responded to his fans. Only terrible handwriting seemed to be universal between the Justices.

I’m thankful for SMU, the Honors Program, and the Richter Foundation for giving my class the chance to enjoy this wonderful opportunity, and hope that many other students will have this chance in the future. While it may not be as glamorous of a spring break trip as going to Disneyworld or Mexico, I wouldn’t have traded it for anything else.

There’s still much work to be done, and sometime in the near future I’ll have to go through the multitudes of files saved on my computer, but for now I’m going to enjoy a full night’s sleep for once.

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Patchwork of papers

AntonAn update from Anton, who is majoring in political science, public policy and English. He is researching Justice Potter Stewart’s views on the right to privacy, particularly in the area of reproductive rights:

The bulk of our trip to Washington, D.C., was spent in the Library of Congress, where we conducted extensive research in the papers of various Supreme Court justices. The unique thing about my project was that the Library of Congress didn’t have the papers of my justice of interest – Potter Stewart. He gave his papers to Yale, so my research at the LoC was restricted to his colleagues’ documents. This created an interesting research experience, one that I consider worth rehashing for the purposes of this blog.

My research involved the papers of seven different justices. Some of the early 1970s cases involved me looking at the documents of five justices. Although I often found early circulated drafts of opinions in the papers of Stewart’s brethren, it nonetheless felt like I was discovering his views through the eyes of others. I would find handwritten notes from conference about what Stewart thought of certain cases, and these notes were hued by the views of the justices writing them. I’d balance one justice’s writings against another’s marginalia, or I’d compare the views of one justice on a particular topic to how he reacted to Stewart’s ideas. I had to piece together a motley of evidence from a variety of collections. The process was stimulating in the way a puzzle is stimulating. The results – understanding Stewart’s views by exhaustively putting together various pieces – were gratifying in the way solving a puzzle is gratifying.


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Under the weather, but still a great trip

image5An update from Sydney, a sophomore majoring in political science and English, and minoring in Chinese. She is conducting research on Justice Blackmun’s changing approach to capital punishment:

On Thursday, the unthinkable happened: I got sick. While browsing the Blackmun papers, a killer cold hit me and could not be shaken. My spirits remained high, and being surrounded by concerned and always entertaining classmates and a caring professor helped to ease my pain. After an emergency trip to CVS, I found myself armed with all of the tools I would need to combat the rest of the week.

The majestic Chief Justice John Marshall

The majestic Chief Justice John Marshall

I finished up with all of my cases and enjoyed a final visit to We the Pizza. Our visit to the Supreme Court and our conversation with the Clerk of the Court was definitely a highlight. The final days of the trip did not disappoint, despite my less than healthy condition.

Back in my dorm room recovering, I can happily say that getting sick on the trip did not lessen my experience. In fact, I think that it brought out the kindness in all of my classmates and made me even more aware of how lucky I am to be a part of this class. Now, the real work begins: decoding all of the information I collected and writing the paper that this trip merits.

Thanks to Professor Kobylka, the Richter foundation, and all of my PLSC 4320 classmates for making this spring break such an amazing adventure.

Posing with the subject of my research, Justice Harry A. Blackmun, in the Supreme Court

Posing with the subject of my research, Justice Harry A. Blackmun, in the Supreme Court

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On an intellectual high

10501593_2714578433554_5960927085882146984_nAn update from Mollie, a senior majoring in political science and human rights, with a minor in Chinese. She is conducting research on Justice Black and his interpretation of the Equal Protection Clause:

As our trip came to a close, I think most of the group was in disbelief of how fast the week flew by. You know the saying, “time flies when you’re having fun,” is particularly true when you’re researching. Throughout the week, I felt like I was on an intellectual high. Despite getting roughly six hours of sleep each night, I woke up excited to continue my project. I am a creature of habit so having a similar routine every day eliminated distractions that inevitably come with traveling. The monotonous cycle of breakfast, library, dinner, and bed, enabled me to devote 100% of my focus to my work.

This intellectual high I​ experienced is partly inspired by my discovery of the justices’ brilliance. I would snap photos of clever exchanges between the justices that were totally unrelated to my topic because their writing styles were so incredibly fluid and funny. I would think to myself, I want to reply to a dinner invitation with that degree of wit!

Kelsey and I, during our 28th hour in the library when we were feeling pretty silly.

Kelsey and I, during our 28th hour in the library when we were feeling pretty silly.

For me, the group element of the trip also fueled my intellectual energy. I am normally very independent in most things I do, so the extent that I benefited from working among a group surprised me. Our journey from the luxurious Ballston Comfort Inn to laboring for 8 hours in a library every day really resonated with me. When I felt tired or delirious, as I experienced a whole range of emotions throughout the week – which the people who worked near me were subjected to – I really couldn’t wimp out. For one, my professor was about 15 feet away from me, but also my peers’ dedication carried me.

Overall, I am hopeful that my intellectual high will manifest into an exceptional research paper, and I am certain this experience will remain near and dear to me throughout my years. I hope any student who has interest in the Court will seriously consider taking advantage of this opportunity as it is a decision they will not regret.

Cheering on the SMU basketball team at Reagan National Airport. Go Mustangs!

Cheering on the SMU basketball team at Reagan National Airport. Go Mustangs!

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A peek inside the U.S. Supreme Court

AntonAn update from Anton, who is majoring in political science, public policy and English. He is researching Justice Potter Stewart’s views on the right to privacy, particularly in the area of reproductive rights:

With the trip winding down and our research all but complete, I find myself reflecting on some of my favorite experiences of the past week. Whether it be in visiting the Jefferson Building, enjoying two great meals at the aptly named “We, The Pizza,” or sifting through the papers of Supreme Court Justices, our class journey to Washington D.C. has left me with plenty to remember. An experience that particularly stood out was our visit to the Supreme Court. The grandiose building is sure to captivate any visitor, especially a starry-eyed political science major such as myself.

A1 IMG_3847 A2 IMG_3895The marble building is full of friezes of ancient lawgivers, busts and portraits of past Supreme Court Justices, and various pieces of elegant architectural design. The portraits of old Justices intrigued me the most. As I walked by clusters of portraits, I paid attention to how they were arranged next to one another. Then I’d think of how the Justices may have felt about being placed next to certain other Justices, given what I knew of their relationships with one another, or about the overall effect that particular arrangements of Justices would have on passersby, given what I knew about the Justices’ reputations and ideologies. This may sound like the dorkiest game you’ve ever heard of – especially because it appears to be based in interior design as much as it is in anything relevant to this trip – but I promise you, it was lots and lots of fun.

We also had the wonderful privilege of meeting with the clerk of the Court, who devoted an hour of his time to telling us SCOTUS stories and answering our questions. This took place in a comely little dining room sometimes used for meals by the Justices’ spouses. The clerk was a well-spoken, amicable man, and he came off as highly intelligent (although that’s obviously expected of someone in his position). He seemed genuinely interested in making sure we knew whatever it was we had questions about, whether those questions be over his position, Court affairs in general, or the famously charming personality of Chief Justice Roberts. I think we spent around three hours at the Supreme Court, although I lost track of time pretty early on.

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The research experience of a lifetime

Our group in the Madison building, where we conducted our research, on our last full day.

Our group in the Madison building, where we conducted our research, on our last full day.

An update from Kelsey, a junior majoring in history, political science and philosophy with a minor in law and legal reasoning. She is investigating the evolution of the levels of scrutiny used in 14th amendment non-racial discrimination cases:

Today we are making our way back to Dallas. I am currently sitting in the Madison building of the Library of Congress taking a little mental break from my research. Sitting here, amongst my classmates that I now consider my friends and documents from some of the most notable people in our nation’s history, I can’t help but realize what an incredible opportunity and amazing experience this week has been.

A photo by Sydney while researching in the LOC.

A photo by Sydney while researching in the LOC.

I heard about this seminar when I was visiting SMU as a prospective student my senior year of high school. An older student that I met told me all about it and how exciting it was. He introduced me to Professor Kobylka, and I knew that day that this was something I wanted to do. I have looked forward to this class for the past two and a half years. I can truly say that it did not disappoint! This past week has been the experience of a lifetime and I am so grateful that I was (finally) able to be a part of it.

Despite my excitement, I was honestly nervous for this class and this trip at the beginning of the semester. A week of research, every day from 8:30ish to 5:00 seems like an intense and intimidating way to spend spring break. I thought the days would be long and I wasn’t sure if we would have fun. This trip, as Professor Kobylka often reminds us, will be the spring break that I remember the most. The days have flown by and I cannot believe we are already leaving.

Mollie and I inside the Supreme Court next to the statue of John Marshall.  Legend has it that if you rub his foot you will get into law school, pass your BAR exam, or just have some good luck!

Mollie and I inside the Supreme Court next to the statue of John Marshall. Legend has it that if you rub his foot you will get into law school, pass your BAR exam, or just have some good luck!

I began the week by researching within Justice Blackmun’s files and was amazed by the handwritten notes I found, the detailed memos between the Justices, and the overwhelming amount of information to sort through. However, by the second day I got the hang of things and was able to enjoy the research. Over the past six days, I have worked my way through Justice Brennan’s files, Justice Marshall’s files, and Justice White’s files. Every file held some sort of new information that I never would have known had I not had the opportunity to look within the Justices’ papers.

I’m a total nerd, but I think most people would agree that seeing handwritten notes between Supreme Court Justices about cases that subsequently shaped our laws and society is pretty exciting. The past six days have given me an insight into our nation’s history that I never even dreamed of having. Our time in the library has passed way too quickly. Researching is actually fun and exciting and I sincerely wish we had more time. Our trip to D.C. has been intense, but in a good way. I have loved every minute of it and I honestly cannot think of a better way to spend my spring break.

Mollie and I at the White House.

Mollie and I at the White House.

While it has definitely been a lot of work, we’ve also managed to have some fun. The other night we took an impromptu trip to see the White House. We had a private tour of the Supreme Court and were able to sit and talk with the Clerk of the Court, Scott Harris. Once again, this was such a unique opportunity. He spoke to us about the procedural functions of the Court, about his typical day as the Clerk, and about his history and how he became the Clerk. Last night we ended our final full day in the LOC by returning to “We The Pizza.”

Overall, this week has been amazing and I am beyond happy I got to spend my spring break here. While I am sad to be leaving, I cannot wait to get some sleep and then begin organizing and compiling my research.

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The Supreme Court: Behind the scenes

An update from Terisha, a first-year public policy and economics major. She is conducting research on how the Court handles civil liberties during war:

Today was our last full day in the Library of Congress and I can’t believe that we’ll be leaving tomorrow.

This week has gone by extremely quickly, and as I think about it, we’ve all gone over a lot of material and learned a ridiculous amount about our respective Justices and cases. I think the most interesting part of the research for me was when I got the opportunity to look through public correspondence. Although it wasn’t extremely relevant to my research topic, it was still nice to see how the public responded to Supreme Court decisions.

The Supreme Court, and the federal judiciary in general, is fascinating in part because of the idea that they have life-tenure. They aren’t held accountable to the people because they aren’t voted in by the people and they don’t have to run for re-election. However, a part of the job is having to deal with people who are unhappy with the consequences of their decisions and having to make decisions that align with a document that is a little over two centuries old. On some level it is comforting that they accept that the questions they must decide are difficult and require balancing of different values such as security and liberty.

Today I was going through Justice Jackson’s papers on the Court case Dennis v. United States, and he had pages on pages of scribbling where he seemed to be weighing the importance of freedom of speech versus the need for the government to enact measures to prevent its overthrow. He would seem as though he was going one way and then he would have a counterpoint that would take him the other way. Eventually he decided to uphold the convictions of the prisoners, but it’s comforting that a lot of thought was put into his decision and argument.

This trip has been like a behind-the-scenes tour of previous Supreme Courts because we get to see what was going on behind the famous opinions that we read for class. And on our tour we’ve had loads of help from the staff here at the Manuscript Reading Room, who are some of the most pleasant and helpful people I’ve met. It’s truly been a comfort to know that even though sometimes I have no idea what I’m doing, I can always go to the desk and ask one of them for help and they’ll be more than willing to help me out, no judgment.

Before I sign off to go eat some delicious pizza, I just want to thank Dr. Kobylka for his guidance throughout this process. Although he teases me to no end, he can be helpful and definitely has been an extremely valuable resource during this trip. Also shoutout to the crew of PLSC 4320, y’all are all rockstars. #numberuno ​


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Our well-oiled research ‘machine’

Lily LiAn update from Jiayi (Lily), a first-year student majoring in accounting and minoring in economics. She is conducting research on Justice Hugo Black’s role in the incorporation process:

Sitting in my hotel room and reviewing the scanned files from the past three days, I am astonished by the amount of work and the depth of research this trip has allowed me to do! The first day researching and trying to find relevant documents and quotes was a lot of fun and exposed me to a wide variety of communications among Justices that we don’t see in a textbook or a Powerpoint. With that said, the second day was even more fun in that as I learned to narrow in on the research question and really analyze the documents, the day just flew by. The fun in this experience for me comes from gradually learning what I am looking for in the files, reading different versions of the revised drafts and making notes to see how these changes all work together to answer my research question. The real attraction of the project comes from making sure that all the moving parts align in a way that the entire “machine” functions effectively and smoothly.

Justice Hugo L. Black

Justice Hugo L. Black

Dr. Kobylka also makes sure that we explore not only the documents but also Washington D.C. as a site of unique conglomerations of history and contemporary leadership. He brought us to get an exclusive inside tour of the Supreme Court, where we saw the library within the Supreme Court, the Courtroom, one of the conference/meeting rooms, the wonderful sculptures of Chief Justices, numerous portraits of associate Justices, the statue of Chief Justice John Marshall, who is much revered for his leadership in the earlier development stages of the Supreme Court. Later, we met Mr. Scott S. Harris, who is the Clerk of the Supreme Court and is very warm, welcoming and informative.

Days here in D.C. flew by and I can hardly believe that our trip is rapidly coming to an end, but I am truly thankful to have the opportunity to go on this research expedition with an intelligent and friendly group and a very humorous, scholarly and incredibly passionate professor! Above all, I have learned to think critically. So it comes as no surprise that I have really enjoyed the experience and can honestly think of no better way to spend my break!

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