Honors Course Reflections

Radha Polley: Blog 1

It has been Day 3 in Washington D.C. with my seminar buddies, or as Professor Kobylka affectionately refers to us, my homies. It was our second day researching in the Library of Congress Manuscript Reading Room, and the day I realized I could spend years rifling through these papers and still need more time with them.

We are definitely starting to get the rhythm down of waking up early, taking the metro to the library, getting through security, and getting to work in the library. I’m currently researching the abortion right and its evolution from Roe v. Wade to Planned Parenthood v. Casey for my end-of-term paper. Thankfully, for most of that time period, Justices Blackmun and Brennan were sitting on the Supreme Court. These two justices have extensive files in the Library of Congress; they, among other justices, bequeathed their official and personal papers to the Library to house them and open them to the public. This has made my Spring Break interesting. I didn’t realize how interesting it would be to piece together the progression of each case using draft opinions, memorandum, conference notes, and the like. These are comparable to missing pieces to the puzzle, because they aren’t published with the opinion of the Court, they’re kept with the justices’ papers until they decide to make them public.

My absolute favorite finds were personal notes and memos that showed the justices’ personalities and relationships with each other. For example, finding the memo in which Justice Douglas threatened to make a statement about Roe v. Wade’s reargument helped show me how important the issue seemed even to the justices, and also illustrated the effects of voting at conference and at the first oral arguments with a 7-man court instead of a full 9-justice court. Other memos between specific justices exemplify how the coalitions work with each other to improve their opinions and possibly sway dissenting justices to join parts or all of the majority. These are the influences that we cannot see in the opinion. This is where the legal arguments are fleshed out, probed, tested, criticized, and strengthened. It really gave me an inside view as to how these cases were decided, and perhaps why certain justices either stuck with their voting coalition or departed to join an unusual minority in landmark cases.

The most entertaining things to find were the notes between clerks and their justices regarding the inter-chamber spying and gossip they had heard. It was humorous to see intellectuals behaving strategically based on what Justice A said at lunch or whether Justice B’s daughter-in-law was pregnant or whether Justice C thought he had the other justices in his pocket (all examples of real situations I found hidden in memos). These memos are not merely for fun though; they play a crucial part in helping me determine the attitude of the justices toward each other and their desires to target other specific justices to strategically plan opinions and questions for oral argument.

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