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.

Back to Dallas – and writing our papers

James.jpg An update from James, a sophomore political science and philosophy major who is researching the shift in Supreme Court cases Poe v. Ullman (1961) and Griswold v. Connecticut (1965):

Although today was our last day in the capital, it was as full of excitement as any other day this week. The day started off as usual with us arriving at the Library of Congress bright and early to get a full day of research. Some people in the group were in stress mode due to the fact that they still had a large amount of information to find and they were running out of time, whereas others were winding down on what they needed to read and get accomplished.

A definite highlight for me today was eating lunch in the Supreme Court. The special lunch was originally meant to be somewhat of a group thing, but unfortunately some people needed as much time as they could get to do their research, so it ended up being only Ashley and I. The cafe where we ate was really nice. What made the meal even better was that we sat right next to a law clerk so we were able to eavesdrop on his conversation about memos he had sent and other jobs he had performed working for a justice. Unfortunately we couldn’t hear what justice he clerked for, but it was cool nonetheless.

After our full day of research and dinner, Prof Kobylka and Martha headed back to the luxurious Comfort Inn to get stuff done and to rest. The remainder of the group decided to stay in D.C. for a while longer to enjoy the sights and environment since it would be our last night. After some initial tension due to the long hours and lack of relaxation, we made our way to the White House and the Washington monument.

I’ve had a tremendous experience here in D.C. that I don’t think I will be able to forget anytime soon. In addition to being able to research in the LIbrary of Congress, I think I’ve made some great relationships with some truly awesome people, for which I am thankful.

We leave tomorrow for Dallas and the rest of the semester, including having to write the essay we’ve been researching for this entire week …

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Thanks for a great trip

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, today was our last full day of the trip. I feel very satisfied about all the information I found for my topic, and I’m looking forward to putting it all together when I start writing my paper after we get back. The whole experience of doing this research has been great: I feel like I’ve already learned so much about the judicial decision-making process and it’s been so great getting to see what all goes into writing opinions for these important cases.

Of course, this trip hasn’t just been all about the work. Getting to experience D.C. has really been a treat. Tonight after the library closed we even got a chance to walk around the National Mall and stand in front of the White House and the Washington Monument! There’s so much history to discover in this city, and I definitely look forward to coming back here in the future to visit all the other sights I missed.

Moreover, it’s been great getting to have this experience with my classmates. I was a little bit nervous about this trip at first since I’m one of the only first-years in the group, and I was afraid I might be a little bit left out, but everyone’s been so welcoming and I feel like I’ve made a whole new set of friends. Oh, and it helps that we have such an amazing professor guiding us too.

I just want to conclude by thanking my classmates for such a wonderful time this week as well as Professor Kobylka for making this whole experience possible. Until next time, everyone!

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When justices scribble

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:

Today is our last full day in the Library of Congress, and it’s bittersweet. I’m excited to get home and organize my research so I can start the writing process; on the other hand, I’ve fallen in love with this place and what I’m doing here. For me, this experience has absolutely confirmed that I’m headed in the right direction with my career plans.

Though I feel slightly disloyal to Justice Brennan for saying this, Justice Blackmun’s files have been my favorite to dig through and by far the most helpful for my research. In addition to the fun, sometimes snarky (and therefore, even more fun) comments he has scribbled on everything, memoranda from his clerks have proved invaluable in giving me an insight to the “behind the scenes” happenings of cases.

A general theme in our course thus far has been how and why justices decide things the way they do – this research opportunity has provided a unique inside look at things about which one wouldn’t know simply reading the published opinions. Not to worry, though – I’m still very much a Brennan-ite! One of the highlights of our Supreme Court tour yesterday was the kindness our tour guide showed in allowing me to see and take pictures of and with the (temporarily taken down to be restored) portrait of Justice Brennan!

As April stated, yes, I was a little late yesterday, but I made it in plenty of time – I easily caught up to the group as they were trekking through the wilderness toward the Metro station. My 6-year-old daughter, Emmy, called to ask if we’d seen President Obama (we haven’t. Not yet, anyway … ), and it set me back a bit. I was not about to miss a tour of the Supreme Court, though – as my classmates’ vivid descriptions provide, it was truly an incredible experience!

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Let me guess: John Marshall

Amy1.jpg An update from Amy, a first-year political science and communications major, who is investigating the exclusionary rule and why it was not overturned during the Burger and Rehnquist courts despite consistent Republican appointments to the Supreme Court:

Yesterday was simply amazing. For one thing, the weather was perfect. As soon as we left the hotel, I could tell that the day was going to be “one of those spring break days.” There was a slight breeze, just enough to stir some life into the air. The sun was shining, the sky was clear and blue, and the cherry trees were just beginning to bloom. If we’re lucky, the blossoms will get here before we leave around noon on Saturday.

We left the hotel earlier than usual on Thursday because we were going to tour the Supreme Court. Because of a sick customer on the Metro, we were forced to take a different route from the one we usually took. Luckily, Martha was able to guide us from train to train. We ended up getting to the library earlier than usual. As soon as we dropped our stuff off, we headed over to the Marble Palace. We were lucky enough to get a private VIP tour of the Supreme Court building, getting access to rooms usually off limits to visitors.

We started at the statue of John Marshall, then wound our way up to the Great Hall. From there, we visited the court room, two conference rooms, and the library. The architecture throughout was simply gorgeous. The tour guide said that the architect wanted the building to be “a temple of justice,” and it was just that. Impressive white marble columns lined the walls, star bursts and arabesque flowers covered the ceilings, friezes stretched from wall to wall. The symbolism imbued in every aspect of the design was beautiful and thought-provoking.

Visitors used to walk up the front steps to the great hall to enter the building. But in the past few years, fears about security have restricted access to the Supreme Court. Now, all visitors must go through a vigorous screening process at one of the side doors. That development was truly unfortunate because the great hall was made to wow visitors as they entered this palace of justice.

Right in the back of the great hall is the court room. According to the tour guide, it was designed to be the “heart” of the building. Accordingly, the room was swathed in red velvet, crimson brocade, and scarlet coverings. Even the columns were made of a dusty red marble imported from Europe. Friezes near the ceiling depicted important lawgivers of the past including Hammurabi, Moses, Confucius, and, of course, John Marshall (the Court is obsessed with Marshall). As we left the room, we were able to stand at the lawyers’ podium, not 5 feet from the Justices’ bench. I can only imagine how intimidating it is to present your case with Roberts, Scalia, and all the other Justices staring down their noses at you.

The conference rooms were equally beautiful. Ornate chandeliers, gifts from Switzerland, dangled from the ceiling. High, looming windows let in the sunlight, filling the room with light. Supposedly, the Justices used to complain about the dark when they were working out of the basement of Congress. They wanted light in their new home … and they got it. The tour guide directed our attention to the adjacent court yard. He asked us if we could spot the animals depicted in the architecture. We spotted the lions near the roof easily enough. The owls at the top of the column were a little harder. Quail pointed out the little turtles at the corners of the lampposts’ bases. “Aww, turtle feet,” commented Prof. Kobylka.

From there, we headed to the library, a beautiful, open room lined with row upon row of shelves. Even VIP groups aren’t allowed to completely enter the room, so we could only survey the library from a corner behind a glass barrier. Regardless, the rooms was amazing. Despite the size of the library, only a fraction of the books are held there, even after they built a second deck, doubling the shelf space of the library. The rest of the collection is housed in adjacent storage areas. In the past, Justices would donate parts of their personal libraries to the Court library, but the librarians have been respectfully advising recent Justices to keep their books. The thought’s appreciated, but … no.

As the tour wound to a close, our tour guide told us about the basketball court above the court room. Appropriately nicknamed “the highest court in the land,” the area had been an empty storage space before it was remodeled. According to Prof. Kobylka, the only justice who really put it to good use was White. He would play basketball with the clerks, supposedly quite aggressively. “And I mean, what are you going to do? You wanna drive?! Well, um, ok, go for it!” Kobylka humorously acted out the clerks avoiding White on the court. “And of course, O’Connor desecrated it. She led exercise classes in it,” Kobylka went on to say.

At last, we wandered into the fabled gift shop. I personally decided not to buy anything, but most of my classmates let loose. Nearly everyone bought a Supreme Court teddy. A few people purchased mugs, ties, and other odds and ends. We did get to exit through the front doors. Walking out of the great hall onto the steps was a heady experience. A combination of the perfect weather, the height of the stairs, and the companionship of friends made the entire scene perfect.

We bombarded some poor girl with our cameras and took several group photos. As we walked down the stairs, we got some great shots of Kobylka smoking his pipe and talking on his cell phone on the marble steps. If you had told me he was a Justice, going out after a long day of hearing cases, I would have believed you. Finally, weighed down with treasures from the gift shop, we headed back to the library for another grueling day of research.

When we left around 5, we were met by Prof. Kobylka’s son (“Your angel of surprise” – April to Prof. Kobylka) at the door. He had been visiting his friend in Baltimore and they’d decided to drop in for a visit and some dinner. So the group headed over to Bullfeathers for a rowdy St. Patrick’s day dinner and some of the best onion rings I’ve ever had. Thursday was, by far, the most exciting day thus far.

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So much history in one room

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 was the best day ever because we finally got to go to the Supreme Court! We started off our day with a private tour of the building, getting access to rooms the public doesn’t usually get to see, including the library, which was the most beautiful, amazing, book-filled wonderfulness I have ever seen. It made me want to be a Supreme Court librarian – or even the janitor or something – just so I could be there every day. The courtroom itself was also unbelievable, and it’s mind-blowing to think how much history has taken place in that room – every Court case since 1935 was argued there – we’re talking Brown v. Board of Education, Roe v. Wade, Bush v. Gore, and so many more.

The Supreme Court building also (little-known but awesome fact) houses a basketball court, though we weren’t able to see it. It is located right above the courtroom and is appropriately nicknamed “the Highest Court in the Land.” After the tour, we all spent an obscene amount of time and money in the Supreme Court gift shop, which had every possible Supreme Court-themed souvenir, book, and Christmas ornament you could imagine.

The rest of the day was devoted to more research at the LoC – I spent a lot of the day looking at Justice Blackmun’s papers on the 1992 case Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which is one of the major cases I need for my paper. One of the most interesting things I found, though it didn’t really pertain to my topic, was a memo dealing with the logistics for the morning the case was to be argued. So many people were expected to want a space in the limited public seating area that the line outside the Court was to open at midnight before the case started and be monitored by D.C. police. The fact that the Supreme Court is ruling on issues the public is literally camping out all night to hear oral arguments for was really moving, and a testament to the Court’s central role in American life.

After leaving the library, we walked over to Bullfeathers, this really cool restaurant down the street from the library. We had a fun group dinner before heading back to the hotel, a perfect end to a great St. Patrick’s Day at the Supreme Court!

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Our special tour of the Supreme Court

MarthaAn update from Martha, a first-year student planning majors in accounting and political science:

Thanks to Steve Wermiel, we were able to go on a special tour of the Supreme Court building today. We not only had our own personal tour guide, but we also got to go “behind the scenes” and visit a lot of places that the public never gets to see except in pictures. We were not allowed to take pictures of the library and the courtroom; however, the security guard was kind enough to allow us to take our pictures in the doorway of the courtroom, something that most people never get to do. We even got to go inside two of the conference rooms where the justices discuss their decisions on cases. Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s piano was inside one of them, and I was itching to sit down and play it!

Martha2.jpg The Supreme Court library was incredible – by far the most beautiful law library I’ve ever seen. And to think that the Court’s collection is so huge that the building contains only some of the books in that enormous collection! I think that the library and the courtroom itself were the two things that impressed me the most. We got to stand at the podium where lawyers stand and argue their cases before the Court, and I was amazed at the podium’s close proximity to the justices. Imagine how intimidating it would be to stand there and try to make a convincing argument while staring Chief Justice Roberts and Associate Justices Scalia and Kennedy right in the eyes! Just standing at the podium and adjusting it to the proper height with the little crank on the side (because no one is allowed to touch the microphones – not even the lawyers themselves) was awe-inspiring in itself.

Martha3.jpg After the tour was over, we plundered the gift shop (buying what we took, of course) before heading back to the library for our third day of research. I went through about 15 cases today and was successful at finding a lot of Black’s comments on free speech. I feel like I’ve struck buried treasure every time that I find a scribbled note on the side of an opinion draft, such as “this settles clear and present danger” or “I agree with this opinion because it does not say that the Court is entitled to use the clear and present danger test.” That’s when the hours of sifting through pages and pages of material really pay off.

In photos: At the Supreme Court (right), and our group inside the manuscript reading room at the Library of Congress.

The research becomes easier with practice, and not all of the cases have five folders of material to sort through like Bridges v. California did. I was especially fascinated by the Brandenburg v. Ohio case, which was a 9-0 decision, because there were at least two dozen memos from various justices to each other bargaining for votes with phrases such as “please join me in this opinion,” or even “if you join with me in this opinion, I will join with you on your opinion in ___ v. ____ .” Then, the justices sent replies stating that they would join, but only if one particular part of the opinion was modified or deleted. The result was that all the justices eventually came up with an opinion that was less strongly worded than the original, but that they unanimously agreed to.

We had learned about the Court’s bargaining techniques during class and through the books that we read about the Court this semester, but it was still quite fascinating to actually see an example of what we learned in the shaping of an actual case. This trip has definitely made the things we learned in class come to life in an unforgettable way, and I am already sad that we will be leaving on Saturday. One thing is for sure, I will be coming back on my own sometime to study the justices in greater detail … I’m an official Supreme Court nerd now!

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New appreciation for the judicial process

April.jpg An update from April, a junior political science and philosophy major, with a Russian minor, who is researching the Burger Court’s evolution in its stance on the death penalty and how external pressures affected their decisions:

Yesterday, Wednesday, I definitely had to buckle down and work. Vanessa and I actually woke up 15 minutes before we had to be downstairs, but we made it fine and in time for me to grab a cup of coffee to go before our group made the trip down the hill to the metro and to the Library of Congress to dive into our work.

I started back into my Brennan files, which ended up being my focus the whole day. Dr. Kobylka was right on target when he warned us prior to the trip how easily you can become so engrossed in what you are reading and mesmerized by the fact that you are working with the same documents that were written and used by the Justices themselves. Brennan’s files are particularly enthralling considering he saved a good amount of the papers that went through his office, making my research much easier. Going through these files makes me have a whole new appreciation for the judicial process and the thought and creativity involved in coming to most Constitutional decisions.

I started getting a bit concerned toward the end of the day because I still had so much more to go through with Brennan before I could move on to Justice Blackmun’s papers. I got through as much as I could before it was time for us to pack up and leave for our Chinese dinner. Still in the “mode,” I spent some time during dinner organizing myself for the next day so I could be as productive as possible from the moment I got to the Library. We spent dinner bonding as usual, and I can truly say all of my classmates have become more than that; they have become my good friends.

Once back at the hotel, I went down to the gym for as good of a workout as I could muster and then back up to my room to do some more work before I went to sleep. My roommates and I talked a while, as we have been every night since we arrived, and finally got to bed so we could get a good start on our day, which was supposed to start at a 7:15 meeting time.

Today was beyond incredible. I can’t explain how fortunate we have been, but thanks to all those who have been working so diligently to make this trip as fulfilling as possible, we were able to have a private tour of the Supreme Court. Vanessa, Amanda and I woke up super early so we could get ourselves ready and meet in time. Unfortunately Sarah didn’t quite make it in time so she had to catch up before we got to the metro since we were rushing to reach the Supreme Court in time for our tour. Our metro stopped halfway, however, because apparently someone got sick, but thankfully Martha figured out how to jump metros and arrive at our station.

We stored our bags at the manuscript room lockers in the Library of Congress before continuing to the Supreme Court, and once we got there, we spent our extra few minutes passing our cameras off to each other so we could all get pictures with the massive statue of John Marshall, who happens to be the central focus of the building. Of course I mixed up John Marshall and Thurgood Marshall at first, which was beyond embarrassing, but everyone got a good laugh out of it.

Our tour guide was a sweet, personable junior from George Washington University, and he led us around the building explaining everything as we went. I think we’re all in agreement that the best part of the tour was when we were brought into the actual hearing room and were able to individually stand at the podium where the attorneys stand when arguing their cases. I can’t imagine how intimidating that must be considering the fact that the podium is incredibly close to the Chief Justice’s seat with Scalia’s seat to the left. Unforunately we weren’t permitted to take pictures in the hearing room or the private library, which was just as exciting. At the end of the tour, Dr. Kobylka allowed us to spend some time (and money) in the gift shop, but we had to hustle to get back to work at the Library.

I got right to work once I got to my table and finally made it through the Brennan papers and on to Blackmun. It’s funny how in just a few days we have already gotten the hang of the system and go through the motions naturally, as if we have been doing research here all semester. Mr. Flannery allowed us to take a few pictures at the end of the day in the manuscript room, even though it is usually prohibited.

As we walked out of the building, Dr. Kobylka’s son and his friend were standing outside to surprise him since he has been spending his spring break in Baltimore and wanted to spend the day in D.C. They joined us for dinner at this fun little restaurant down the street from the Library, and I’m pretty sure this was the peak of our group’s bonding experience. I have never expected to be in a class where each person contributes so much intellectually and socially – and especially not in one that becomes so close as one big group as opposed to multiple cliques. I feel so blessed to have been able to be included in this special group of incredible individuals who have become such amazing friends in only a small amount of time.

I knew this would be the experience of a lifetime, but I never could have expected it to be as ideal as it has been.

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The perfect library

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:

I didn’t think it was possible, but every day in D.C. has gotten better and better. Today was packed; we had a VIP tour of the Supreme Court, continued our research at the Library of Congress, and ate our St. Patrick’s day dinner at Bullfeathers, a bustling bar and grill in the heart of D.C.

The Supreme Court was amazing! I have never been so awed by a building. The grandeur of the Great Hall and the majesty of the Courtroom were breathtaking. Flush with detail and ornate carvings of historical figures and allegorical depictions, every room was an onslaught of beautiful scenes. My favorite room, if I was forced to pick – because they are all gorgeous – was the library. I could not have imagined a more perfect library; the ceiling was high and, like everything else in the building, surrounded by carved images; the reading area was spacious, bright and encircled by rows and rows of books. It is impossible to do the beauty of the room justice (pun intended) in a blog post, so I will conclude by saying that it can only be experienced.

After our tour was complete, we headed to the one-and-only official Supreme Court Gift Shop located inside the building. Needless to say, this was an occasion for die-hard Court fans to drop some serious cash on all manner of Supreme Court memorabilia.

When we headed back to the library to continue our research, I was filled with a new appreciation for the papers I was investigating. It’s one thing to know where they came from, but just being in the building made the experience so much more real for me.

I cannot believe tomorrow is our last full day in D.C.; the week has literally flown by. Despite some minor incidents of hair pulling I have loved everything about my time here. Trip to D.C.? The Court says YES!

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My favorite Chief Justice

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:

The intern at the Supreme Court who gave us a tour today asked, “So who’s your favorite Chief Justice?” He probably didn’t realize my answer would stick with me throughout the day, and probably throughout my life.

Everyone loves John Marshall. I admit, I love the guy, too. He’s an icon for us Supreme Court junkies. From there, people mostly went with Chiefs who furthered things like policy preferences and altered society in a way they favored. My favorite Chief Justice is my favorite for a different reason, and I am beginning to see much deeper into the judicial system than I had ever thought I would venture. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist has a special place in my heart – a surprising choice for most because they automatically connect his political views and assume I hold the same; quite the contrary actually.

I favor him because he reminds me what law, judgment and politics are about. He didn’t care about popularity or bargaining; he became the “Lone Ranger” in his day because he continuously stood up for what he honestly thought was correct according to the Constitution.

Digging deeper and deeper into the Justices’ papers, I begin to really appreciate all the effort and thought they put into their opinions. It’s not always just policy preference (although, I did find, sometimes it is), but other times, Justices genuinely disagree on how to interpret certain precedents and laws, and that causes major outcome differences.

Yesterday, I labored over five different drafts of one of O’Connor’s concurrences, and I found myself getting frustrated with her for being so picky about the opinion and the way to get to it. One little detail caused her to write a 15-page concurrence, and I needed to go through all five of the drafts to find the differences and evolution of each one. Although it is tedious work and stylistic changes angered me at times, when reflecting on it, I realized they themselves labor over these opinions because they matter. People like me study them later in history, and society changes because of it.

Our class is called “Law, Politics, and the Supreme Court,” and despite the usually negative view of politics being slimy, two-faced, and compromising, I realized politics lives everywhere – and within the Supreme Court, politics stands overall to be a very noble tool. The Justices do try to bargain and persuade people to support their opinion, but it is for a cause they truly believe in and for reasoning or logic they themselves trust to be the interpretation of our law.

With this in mind, researching the papers tends to get easier and more enjoyable despite the long hours and tedious details to comb through, because it’s the details that matter and the hours of work that make the difference. Yes, I am learning incredible amounts of information regarding my specific research topic on this trip, but I am also beginning to understand a much bigger picture outside of myself and my paper. I can read it in books, I could listen to it in class (both which happened this semester in preparation for this), but I don’t think I could have really understood and fully appreciated these lessons unless I had seen it and experienced it myself.

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Big change in plans

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:

Day two at the Library of Congress was not as successful as the first. I definitely learned some of the pitfalls of primary source research. Several of the resources that I was planning to draw on were much more sparse than I expected, to the point that I had to redesign and redirect my research on the fly. As frustrating as it was (and I definitely panicked), it was a really valuable experience that has taught me how to cope with roadblocks in research.

My original topic was incorporation of the bill of rights to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment before Adamson v. California in 1947, which led me into cases stretching all the way back to the 1800s. After spending my Wednesday running into dead ends and trying to decipher 19th-century calligraphy in the documents, I concluded that it would be best to reverse the direction of the timeline guiding my research. Now, instead of dealing with cases that show the formation of methods and theories of incorporation, I am looking at the application of those theories in the period after Adamson. That means new cases, new justices and new questions, but today was a new day and I was able to start over.

Although this has been a challenging endeavor, and I have dealt with a significant amount of sleep deprivation and stress, there is nothing I would rather be doing with my spring break. I have had my hands on so many fascinating documents that have helped to shape the America we live in today. I’m learning how to be a better researcher, and ultimately, I will have a finished product that I can really be proud of.

Amanda1.JPG Even to the other adult researchers in the library, it is hard to explain why college students would want to do this with our break; the great thing about my classmates is that they all have the same excitement for their work as I do, which drives us to put in the hours of focus. We have an end goal in mind, and that goal really is to learn more about the laws that govern our country and the incredible court that interprets and “makes” them.

Today we visited the Supreme Court building in the morning before our research day began. We toured the courtroom, conference rooms and libraries, and admired the beautiful architecture of the “marble temple.” We got the chance to stand in the place where lawyers argue before the court to see how very intimidatingly close to the Chief Justice it really is. We also played an exciting game of “spot John Marshall” (he is everywhere), and I learned that turtles are an important symbol of the court (slow and steady, get it?) Disappointingly we weren’t able to casually bump into a current Supreme Court justice – “Where ARE you Scalia??” – but we did get to visit the gift shop, perhaps the most important visit of our trip.

So those were the ups and downs of my last two days. I went from discouragement and panic to a new feeling of confidence and excitement. It’s amazing what a bunch of white marble and a huge stack of papers can do (but maybe there’s a little more to it.)

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