I had a very specific plan when I came into this week. I was well versed on my research topic, the status of the constitutional right to education, I knew what cases I was going to look at, I knew what justice’s papers I needed to see, and I had everything planned down to the box I was going to use and when I thought I was going to look at them. After my first day in the reading room, all of this has been thrown out the window. I found that the story that I was trying to tell, the story of education and the Supreme Court, was intertwined into a much larger story about the extension of personal rights that began in the 1940s and largely ended in the 1980s.
I began with the 1973 case San Antonio v. Rodriguez, one of the most important Supreme Court for education, where the court determines that there is no fundamental right to education. This case is decided two months after Roe v. Wade and I immediately began draw comparisons, trying to figure out how two cases about fundamental rights could come down in two completely different ways. This question led me down a path of cases about the right to procreation, the right to counsel, the right to welfare, the right to housing, even the right to travel.
These cases helped me answer my research question, but outside of that, they gave me a better perspective on understanding rights as a whole. So many rights, like the right to move freely from state to state or the right to council, have always existed in my life, and therefore in my mind they had always just existed. As it is now, so it has always been, I supposed. Yet in front of me were the drafts of opinions, dissents, conference notes, and memos that established many of the rights that we usually don’t think twice about – rights that were not established at the founding of our country, rights that weren’t established a century ago, but rights that came into existence during the lives of my grandparents and parents.
These cases also allowed me to watch the Supreme Court speed through the normal path of liberty. How long would it have taken segregation to end or for miscegenation laws to be struck down if Brown v. Board of Education and Loving v. Virginia had not been taken up by the court? The boxes of hate mail correspondence that the justices received regarding these cases indicate that the road to some kind of legislation striking these laws down nationwide would have been met with vehement opposition. After the court decided in the 1875 case Minor v. Happersett that the constitution did not grant women the right to vote, it took forty-five years for an amendment to be passed. With that pace, segregation would have been struck down by Congress in 1999, two years after I was born.
All of this information brings up questions that do not have anything to do with my research question but do challenge my opinions and beliefs about the role of the court. In research, you aren’t supposed to try to identify if something is good or bad, and ultimately, in my final research paper, I will be objectively stating the facts about where we are in terms of the right to education and how we got here. If you read it, you won’t find out my opinions about the court or their decisions, you won’t find out how impassioned my research made me about a topic (i.e. the Supreme Court in general) that was once only in my peripheral. You won’t know the gravity of my realization that these ideas that we know as fundamental rights did not objectively exist but were written into life by men who decided we should have them.
When I came into this week, I was laser focused on the finish line, on jumping in, answering my research question, and jumping out. Some open-mindedness and a willingness to deviate from my path allowed me to explore ideas that not only gave my research more depth but also provided me with a personal perspective I would not otherwise have had.