Honors Course Reflections

Maggie Cook-Allen: Blog 1

I expected the hardest part of my research to be grasping complex legal doctrine. The justices are trained legal scholars, while I am an undergraduate political science major. The legal doctrine was actually not so hard to understand. The hardest part of gathering the research was getting past the justices’ handwriting.

Stationary of Justice Anthony M. Kennedy dated 3/20/1992: Dear Henry, My own early morning use of the word [indistinguishable word] for its peril, and in my memo to you I talked of our exchange in Lynch v Donnelly. Of course, I meant Allegheny County. [Indistinguishable word] there has been some rise in my sensitivity, I have not been [indistinguishable word] this long. Yours, K

Handwritten Note from Kennedy to Blackmun 1992

The handwritten documents are important in understanding how the justices decide cases. They offer an insight into what the justices were thinking throughout the decision-making process. In some instances, such as the note from Kennedy, justices use handwritten notes to clarify what they meant in previous communications or draft opinions (at least that’s what I think it says).

Other handwritten documents show a justice’s initial understanding of a particular case. Notes in oral arguments show the information that the justices gathered after speaking directly with the lawyers from both sides. Blackmun’s notes are a good example of this, though it was hard to make out what he said. The one thing that you could clearly make out in his oral argument notes is the grades he gives the lawyers. In addition to a letter grade, he would also denote a short, blunt description of the recipient of the grade. In the following picture, this person, identified as “very old and older pale,” received only a C.

Typed note: No. 73-1765 - Meek v. Pittenger; Argued: February 19, 1975; Handwritten note: 10:30- [Indistinguishable words] C very old or older pale; No [indistinguishable word] fax; We [indistinguishable words] consideration faster; X I ask we OR Allen but we [indistinguishable words]; K I give up on [indistinguishable words] 11:27.

Blackmun Oral Argument Notes 1975

Conference notes outline each justice’s thoughts after hearing oral arguments, and how they would initially vote. This is important because it establishes a strong starting point. For instance, in Lee v. Weisman, Kennedy initially voted to uphold a public-school prayer, forming a 5-4 majority affirming the prayer. As he was writing the opinion, however, he switched his vote, forming a 5-4 majority against the public-school prayer. You wouldn’t know this by only reading the final opinion. By having that initial voting record, you get a much richer understanding of how the case unfolded.

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