Supreme Court Spring2011

As part of the political science course “Law, Politics and the Supreme Court,” students and Political Science Associate Professor Joe Kobylka are spending spring break 2011 in Washington, D.C. The students are conducting research on Supreme Court cases at the Library of Congress.

D.C. withdrawals

Catherine.jpg An update from Catherine, a junior English and public policy major, who is investigating the development of various forms of scrutiny and case analysis over time in the Supreme Court pertaining to the civil rights of African-Americans, women and homosexuals:

Well, it helps a little to know that I am not the only one having D.C. withdrawals now that we have returned to Dallas. The last few days were hectic, hilarious and unforgettable. It is hard to believe I was able to cram so many Supreme Court cases into so few days. There was a lot of photocopying, fast typing, and some divine inspiration involved in that, I’m sure.

One cool discovery was the abundant amount of correspondence from average American citizens found in the Bowers v. Hardwick (a 1986 case upholding the constitutionality of the criminalization of homosexual sex acts) papers of Justice Harry Blackmun. I am convinced that there were more letters written for this case than any of the other cases I reviewed combined. (Except maybe Brown v. Board). Although some were vulgar and mean, I still felt pride in the American people for taking a stand for what they believe in.

Most importantly, though, the last few days provided some of the most memorable bonding experiences for our group. Although I won’t go into details about all of what we went through together, or even necessarily about what we learned about each other (some of my other classmates have already done a great job of that) I will say that I have never been a part of such a cohesive group. Everyone brings something unique – laughter, insight, intelligence, wisdom, quirks, maturity, and often a combination of all of these. I made new friends – honestly with everyone – and look forward to the rest of this semester as well as to future classes and other endeavors (shout out to Kevin – Oxford 2011!). The rest of this semester will not be easy – Dr. Kobylka has already warned us that we have just begun. However, the knowledge and experience gained in Washington D.C. has left me excited and ready to tackle the heart of my research question.

Finally, a huge thank-you to Dr. Kobylka for all he has done for us. Aside from the clear fact that he is both a wonderful professor and mentor, he also whipped us into shape trekking up muddy hills in Alexandria every day and has an impressive eye for delicious food. What else could you ask for in a professor?

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Back to the ‘real world’

Brandon.jpg An update from Brandon, a first-year English and political science major, who is researching Justice Blackmun’s shift in his position on federalism between National League of Cities v Usery (1976) and Garcia v. San Antonio Metropolitan Transit Authority (1985):

Well, we’re back in Dallas now and I’ve been spending the past few days getting back into the swing of normal life.

It was a little bit weird spending all week working only to come back and have more midterms and essays in my other classes to worry about, but I really don’t mind it. I had a lot of fun doing my research in D.C., and while I do wish I could have stayed longer, I think I’m glad to be back in the “real world” of my everyday life.

I’ll never forget the experience I had last week, and I’m so glad to have had the chance to get to know my classmates and professor so much better in the process. For now though, it’s time to organize my research, come up with a more focused thesis, and synthesize everything into the final paper that I’ll be working on for the better part of the rest of this semester.

The trip might be over, but it looks like my work is just beginning. I’m looking forward to being able to share my final product with my classmates once it’s finished!

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From students to scholars

Amanda.jpg An update from Amanda, a junior majoring in Spanish, international studies, political science and anthropology who is investigating the incorporation of the Bill of Rights to the states through the 14th Amendment:

Our last days at the library were fabulous and frenzied. After turning around my research topic, I had a whole new list of cases to investigate, not to mention new justices’ handwriting to get used to. I have to admit, though – Brennan’s handwriting is WAY easier to decipher than Justice Miller’s letters from the 1870s that were written with a quill. Handwriting aside, I had started to feel like I could finally keep my head above water sometime on Friday.

Saturday morning we woke up as early as we had all week to pack up and trek one last time to the metro, this time hauling our luggage right up to the Library of Congress. After some difficulty at security (apparently people don’t usually bring suitcases to the library) we made it in for three final hours of call slips, boxes of papers and frantic Xeroxing. It was during those last hours that I realized how awesome it really was for us to be there. We were surrounded all week by serious scholars working on various projects, and for this week, we got to join their ranks.

I praised my classmates in the last blog, but I feel like they deserve even more credit. I marvel at the amount of focus I was able to maintain for our hours in the library, but part of that was because my classmates were doing the same thing. I would not have developed the same enthusiasm for the things we were looking at without the excitement and humor that my classmates shared with me. I know laughing hysterically about “Raoul Burger, the chief justice that wasn’t” and other Supreme Court jokes isn’t “normal.” But if that’s the case, I am SO glad I was surrounded by a group of Supreme Court nerds all week.

Digging through precious documents, eating massive amounts of food (which I regret not describing in more detail) and trotting off after library hours to glimpse the monuments and the White House were definitely the highlights of the course. Now comes the hard – but equally as rewarding – part. We have the responsibility to use this research to create something worthy of the experience. We aren’t just nerds who love the justices – we are actually scholars of the Court. How cool is it that we get to say that? After one day of rest it’s time to tackle my massive stack of copies from the library and do my best to make SMU (and Professor Kobylka) proud. Wish me luck!!

P.S. April got to make an announcement for our class over the PA on the airplane back to Dallas. I think that’s what Kobylka would call a “bloggable” event.

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Final reflections: Part 2

Kevin.jpg An update from Kevin, a junior majoring in political science, economics and public policy who is investigating the roots of the Rehnquist Court’s federalism revolution on questions of Congress’ commerce power and sovereign immunity claims under the Eleventh Amendment:

For those of you consistenly following this blog, it seems that I have misled you into believing that my last blog was indeed my final entry. But, since we are now back at SMU, I think it is appropriate to write a summary of our fabulous time in D.C. in the hopes that some of you reading this might be encouraged to take part in this trip should it be offered at some point in the future.

The trip began with a simple phone call from Prof. Kobylka to me. “Little Robin, this is Big Bird,” he said. And it ended with April going up to the front of our American Airlines MD-80 plane and congratulating the same Big Bird on his run streak over the plane’s intercom. The events of the week turned a group of 12 students and one professor into much more than a class. We became a family.

We met great people along the way including Jeff, the Head Librarian in the Manuscript Reading Room at the Library of Congress, and Professor Wermiel. Their valuable insight helped turn us from 12 nerdy kids into 12 budding scholars of constitutional law.

But, as many have noted, none of this would have been possible except for the constant support and tutelage of Professor Kobylka. His guidance never waned during our time in the Library of Congress, and both our understanding of the material that we encountered in the Justices’ files and our papers will be the beneficiaries of his guidance. In addition, it goes without saying that all of us owe a tremendous amount of thanks to the Honors Program and to the Richter Foundation. Without the support of these two groups, none of this would have been possible.

I consider myself very lucky to have been a part of this research trip. (And not just because I was fortunate enough to get the Library of Congress 20 percent staff discount at lunch each day.) It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life, and I will never forget it.

This is Little Robin, signing off!

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Like a family now

Hannah%20.jpg An update from Hannah, a sophomore political science and Spanish major who is investigating Justice Brennan’s obscenity jurisprudence and the way it evolved over the course of his tenure on the Court:

IMG_0833%5B1%5D.jpgI’ve only been back in Dallas for two days, but I’m already missing D.C. dearly. I know I’ve said this before, but everything about the trip was perfect and it vastly exceeded my expectations.

First of all I want to give a shout-out to all my classmates. Y’all are such a fun and incredible group and I feel like we’re a family now. It was a pleasure to hike up and down that bloody hill with y’all everyday, to work alongside you in the LOC and chit-chat at the copy machines, to tour around the Court and splurge at the gift shop, and to see your personalities come out! I really do treasure each one of you.

IMG_0819%5B1%5D.jpg I want to give special recognition to my roommates, the beautiful Sarah and Ashley! Y’all were such a delight to live with. I loved our late-night talks and evenings together (and I recommend y’all consider investing in some gloves; they will change your life).

This goes without saying, but the trip owes much of its greatness to the hard work of our beloved professor, Joe “Big Bird” Kobylka, as he is now affectionately known. It cannot be said enough – thank you!

I am also grateful for the Honors Program and the Richter Foundation, which made this trip possible. It was an invaluable experience and I am so grateful for the opportunity they provided me to conduct research in the Justices’ papers.

Finally, now that I am back in Dallas, with a huge stack of photocopies, I am excited to continue working on my paper. I was admittedly nervous going into spring break fearing that I wouldn’t be able to find anything, but the week yielded lots of fruitful research. As Ashley said in one of her earlier blogs, I never thought I’d be able to focus on something for so long, but the hours in the Library simply flew by. Hopefully the rest of my work will go as smoothly.

- Yo everlasting friend forever, Hannah.

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Thank you to an incredible group

Sarah.jpgAn update from Sarah, a senior political science major and human rights minor who is investigating John Paul Stevens’ jurisprudential evolution on the death penalty during his tenure on the Supreme Court:

We’re back in Dallas, and while I’m thrilled to be home with Emmy (my munchkin), I find that I very much miss D.C., our work in the Library of Congress and the amazing group of people with whom I traveled. It is difficult to offer a summation of everything I’ve learned from this experience and how much it means to me, but here’s a shot at it.

I know this opportunity is not one many students, especially at the undergraduate level, ever have. I feel especially fortunate because, as a nontraditional student, I never thought I would have the chance to so thoroughly pursue something I’m so passionate about. Conducting preliminary research before the trip, I fell in love with my research topic. Now I find I’ve fallen in love with the research process as well.

DSCF0812.jpg It is truly ineffable to hold and read through these documents, knowing that many of them forever changed the course of American history. I found myself choked up during our orientation brief – oh, yes, I’m THAT person – when Jeff Flannery, head of the Manuscript Division, passed around documents to give us a feel as to the kinds of things housed in the library. One of them was a series of notes from Justices Douglas, Burton and Frankfurter to Chief Justice Earl Warren, regarding his school desegregation opinion in Brown v. Board of Education. Justice Frankfurter’s opens, “This is a day that will live in glory.” Even then I didn’t realize the extent to which this opportunity would strengthen my understanding of and passion for American constitutional law.

Additionally, I feel honored to be included with such an amazing group of people. I think it’s really interesting how a single shared experience – by which I mean the trip overall, not the harrowing experience of crossing Van Dorn traffic on the way to and from the metro station – can bring people from different backgrounds and personalities together so solidly. Our research findings will be shared in our papers, but I’d also like to share some things I’ve learned about my classmates.

I’ve learned that Catherine and James (i.e., Potatoe-Dan) are two of the funniest people I’ve ever met, and I’ve enjoyed every conversation with them. James has educated me on things Jersey Shore, as well as several other things that make me terrified to have a daughter growing up in this world, and I admire his thoughtfulness and honesty. Catherine, despite being model-gorgeous, is hilarious even when she’s not saying a word – she has the best reactive expressions, and we laughed our way through D.C.

I’ve learned that Hannah, despite the weird sleeps-in-white-gloves/laugh-game-stuff, is incredibly kind and not afraid to stand up for what she believes in. This became apparent in the form of a “do not touch my stuff” note to the hotel cleaning staff (too bad they stopped cleaning my and Ashley’s stuff, too!). I’ve found that Ashley and I see eye to eye on a lot of things – yes, despite the considerable height difference – and she truly has a beautiful soul. Any time I’ve questioned myself in this class, Ashley and Kevin have offered unwavering support, for which I’m extremely grateful, and I love you both. Kev is the kind of student I aspire to be – smart, focused and confident in his intellectual capabilities. There’s not a doubt in my mind we’ll see him as a major player in the political arena someday.

I’ve learned that Martha can – and indeed, will – sleep almost anywhere, a talent I wish I possessed! She’s also funny and very kind-hearted and tends to meet famous people on planes. Brandon is a great person to be stuck on a train with – thanks for helping me laugh through that situation, Bubba – and thankfully his phone stays charged much longer than mine. He also emphatically HATES Ronald Reagan. Amanda copes under pressure with incredible poise and has mastered the art of light packing and looking fabulous every day.

Vanessa successfully juggles a career, school, and caring for her family, and I admire her patience and diplomacy. Plus – even though the spinach-artichoke dip at Hawk and Dove absolutely kicked her rear – she can finagle free ice cream from We the Pizza! Amy can teach anyone how to use chopsticks using a ponytail holder and thinks the underground Metro station looks like some kind of inter-galactic space thing, which is a really nice spin on a dirty underground tunnel. She also recalls incredible detail in her blogs, which is great because with so much going on, I think I missed almost every comment she’s written about! April is sweet and pretty, works hard (even after the rest of us have stopped for the day), and is the kind of person who makes you believe she’ll achieve her goals – it’ll be fun to say I know Miss Texas.

As for our fearless leader, the trip wouldn’t have been what it was without his leadership and guidance. I think his gift for what he does is tremendous, and I’m honored he saw something in me to make him think I should be included with such an incredible group of people.

Thank you all, so much, for allowing me to be a part of your lives for the past week and for being a part of mine. I will never forget this experience, nor will I forget the people who made it what it was for me; you have all touched my life in a very special way.

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The opportunity to be true scholars

vanessa.jpgAn update from Vanessa, a senior majoring in public policy and economics, with minors in political science and philosophy, who is investigating why strict scrutiny was never applied to gender discrimination cases in the Supreme Court:

For the past weekend I’ve been trying to figure out how to appropriately sum up the events of this past week and my reactions and reflections regarding them. I’ve come to the conclusion that no one can truly understand how much every one of us pulled away from this trip because everything about it made it unique and indescribable.

People have asked me, “How was D.C.?” and wonder how I thought it was so incredible despite our lack of tourist time. But I think the opportunity to be true scholars, the chance to do something most people don’t do until they get their doctorates (if even then) do at the ages and places we are in our undergrad career is something we all were able to cherish. We all explain it as us having the same amounts of “nerdiness,” but in all honesty, in my last semester of college, for the first time I finally was able to find a group that truly shared the same enthusiasm for academics as I do. The encouragement and development of our academic interests by Dr. Kobylka made all the difference.

I now look forward to pulling everything together and putting together a paper from the plethora of information I found in the Library of Congress; half the battle is done, but a large part of the evaluation of this trip still remains to be completed. The challenge to produce something amazing is irresistible. I realize every semester I get so caught up with work, family, and life, that I tend to get blindsided by the end of the semester. So much has gone into this, I feel I could work on this paper over and over for the next few years. Research like what we did this past week is what fosters passions in academics, and I am incredibly fortunate to have been given this opportunity.

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A Few of My Favorite Things (from DC)

Hannah%20.jpg An update from Hannah, a sophomore political science and Spanish major who is investigating Justice Brennan’s obscenity jurisprudence and the way it evolved over the course of his tenure on the Court:

A Few of My Favorite Things (from DC)

Comfort Inn suites and roommates with smiles
Long walks through mud and metro rides for miles
Justices’ papers and professors who sing
These are a few of my favorite things

The Supreme Court gift shop where Kevin bought Brennan the Bear
Crossing the street to get there with little care
Cherry blossoms that bloom in the spring
These are a few of my favorite things

Eating in the city and adventures by night
Going to see the White House alight
Coming back to Dallas with some Supreme Court bling
These are a few of my favorite things

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A ‘wow’ moment

Ashley%20.jpg An update from Ashley, a junior majoring in political science and minoring in Russian area studies, who is researching Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s abortion jurisprudence and her change in stance on the abortion issue during her tenure on the Court:

Today is our last day in the library and in D.C., and while we are exhausted from the research and lack of sleep (too many late nights playing “The Laughing Game”), I know everyone is sad to go. We are spending a couple hours this morning finishing looking through the collections and making last-minute copies of important materials, then around noon we’ll be heading over to Washington Reagan for our flight back to Dallas.

Yesterday I saw a copy of a memo sent from Anthony Kennedy to Harry Blackmun regarding Kennedy, O’Connor, and David Souter’s decision to affirm the central holdings of the landmark abortion case Roe v. Wade (a case close to Blackmun’s heart) in their opinion in Planned Parenthood v. Casey. Last spring, when I took Professor Kobylka’s Civil Liberties class, he talked about this case and this note, and it was just a “wow” moment for me.

It was the first time the significance of the monumental decisions the Supreme Court makes (and how carefully they have to consider and form their opinions in these decisions) really sank in for me, and it was when I fell in love with this field of study. For me that short little memo represents so much, and it was so exciting to find the copy of it when going through Blackmun’s files – it was something I had been waiting for the whole trip!

We all spent some time in D.C. last night before heading back to the Comfort Inn, and I was glad we walked over to see the White House (which looks beautiful at night), as it was one of the D.C. sights I hadn’t visited before. All in all, this was an amazing trip and a fantastic opportunity to immerse myself in something I really care about. One of the interesting things I’ve realized this week is how easy it is to focus on something you’re really interested in – I have trouble keeping my mind on homework for 30 minutes back at SMU, but 8 hours a day researching in the justices’ papers is no problem!

I am excited to go home and use the copies of the material I made to keep researching and begin writing my paper – I feel like having this material from the justices’ personal papers, instead of just simply the case opinions, will make such a difference. I will miss being in D.C., though, and am sad to be leaving the best roomies ever, Hannah and Sarah! I will also miss our late night Jersey Shore-watching time and shenanigans with James, Brandon, and Kevin. This has been such a great trip, and I feel so lucky to have had this opportunity!

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A new pet: Brennan the Bear

Kevin.jpg An update from Kevin, a junior majoring in political science, economics and public policy who is investigating the roots of the Rehnquist Court’s federalism revolution on questions of Congress’ commerce power and sovereign immunity claims under the Eleventh Amendment:

Well, I can’t believe this trip came and went as quickly as it did! I have had so much fun with all of the members of this class and have learned so much more about my topic. I am really grateful to the Richter Foundation, the Honors Program, and Professor Kobylka for this tremendous opportunity.

Our last full day of research was pretty uneventful. However, it was extremely rewarding as I finished up the major cases that I had wanted to and am now prepared to make the final touches on my primary research in our limited amount of research time on Saturday. Another hallmark of my day today was Ashley venturing over to the Supreme Court to grab lunch because she consented to grab me a Supreme Court bear (which I named Brennan the Bear)! Brennan has the official Seal of the United States Supreme Court on his belly and is one of the most adorable pets ever!

So, as this concludes my final blog for our D.C. research trip, I would like to give a special shout-out to my roommates on this trip, James and Brandon. Room 716 was the best!

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