Political Science in Washington, 2013

As part of the University Honors Program political science course “Law, Politics and the Supreme Court,” students and Political Science Associate Professor Joe Kobylka are spending spring break 2013 in Washington, D.C. The students are conducting research on Supreme Court cases at the Library of Congress.

Our scholarly family


Our group with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Linda Greenhouse

Our group with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Linda Greenhouse, who also was conducting research at the Library of Congress

An update from Hannah, a political science and Spanish major who is conducting research on the Supreme Court’s change in commerce clause jurisprudence since 1937:

I can’t believe we’ve already been back in Dallas for a few days! The time in DC flew by as we finished out our week scrambling to complete our research and touring the Court and Capitol. Honestly, it was the best week of my semester.

During our tour of the Court we got to see a private conference room and the Justices’ library. I was very excited to see the library again as it was my favorite part of the tour two years ago and my memory did not disappoint, the room was just as exquisite as I remembered.

In addition to being awed once more by the library, I decided to eat lunch in the Court cafeteria with Taylor and Alex. While waiting in line to order we overheard a man come down to place Chief Justice Roberts’ lunch order. Now I know this instantly qualifies me for extreme-nerd status, but it was so cool to know that Roberts was sitting somewhere just upstairs and would soon be eating lunch just as we were about to do!

Our last few days in D.C. brought us closer together as a group, and I really came to cherish each one of my classmates. From laughing together over silly games to discussing our research and the Court, we became a kind of scholarly family, led of course by our fearless father Dr. Kobylka.

Now that I am home again I can’t wait to incorporate my findings into my paper. This was one of my favorite parts of the class two years ago – going back over everything I had found and using it to inform my discussion of the Court – and I can’t wait to do it again.

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Our Chief Justice sighting

An update from Julianna, a sophomore majoring in business who is conducting research on the exclusionary rule:

It’s been a little over two days since we made our way back to Dallas. I don’t even know where to begin! My initial post-trip reaction was most succinctly conveyed in my conversation with my Mom.

“Julie, tell me all about your trip! It must have been so exciting. Did you see the Capitol? How was the Supreme Court?? How was Obama doing?”

“It was awesome. Sorry, gotta sleep…..” and then I trailed off in a stream of mumbles as slumber overtook me. I didn’t wake up until 4 pm Sunday.

Yes, this trip was absolutely exhausting, but it was in the most wonderful way possible. I wouldn’t trade this experience for the world. The Manuscript Reading Room, the squeaky carts stacked with our boxes, the endless collection of primary sources, the good scanner, the finicky scanner, and the librarians all have a special place in my heart. Since I last blogged, we’d taken short tours of the Supreme Court and of the Capitol building during our breaks from researching. Both buildings are absolutely stunning and exude an air of grandeur and authority.

I’d have to say that I most preferred our excursion to the Supreme Court. I forget if I mentioned it before, but D.C. really has a distinct flair. Of course, when we go to D.C., the outside of the Supreme Court had to be under renovation. Because of ongoing marble restoration treatments, the edifice was enshrined with tarps and scaffolding. Just our luck.

Normally, this sort of situation would seemingly ruin any opportunity for a quintessential Supreme Court class photo. But no! Someone out there thought this through and graciously had the huge hanging tarps printed with a giant, high-resolution photograph of the front of the building. Again, stay classy D.C., ow ow ;). That was the most majestic, giggle-worthy tarp I’d ever seen. But I digress; our tour was spectacular. It’s always amusing to exacerbate tour guides, especially since ours expected us to be as knowledgeable about the Supreme Court as a pack of middle-schoolers are.

“Can anyone tell me what the three branches of government are?” She, quite perkily, began. We let her finish her question before politely responding with, “The executive, legislative and judicial branches.” Easy peasie, lemon squeezie. Maybe this was just a warm-up question, we thought.

“Oh, well… Does anyone know what each of the branches do?” We did and we told her. Each question she’d softball to us — to both her surprise and apparent dejection — we’d knock it out of the park. “Who knows who the only impeached justice was?” Kobylka handedly took down that one. Finally, as we approached a beautiful marble bust, she thought she’d really get to stump us. This was her grand finish: “Now, who can tell me why Marshall is known as The Great Chief Justice?”

Our collective, “He established judicial review in Marbury v Madison,” really took the last of the perk right out of her. Maybe it woulda’ been funnier if we responded that it was because he was the first African-American justice on the Court.

I suspect our tour was a bit quicker than most, due to the fact that we accidentally undermined her talking points. Regardless, we all reveled in the importance of the building. We could all appreciate the beauty, detail oriented-ness, and symbolism in the architecture. This is where it all happened and continues to happen. All the papers we’d been working with, all the oral arguments we’d been reading about, and all the memos and opinions we’d been wading through in the Library of Congress came from the very building we were standing in.

Each of us ended up taking pictures with the portraits of “our justices.” – i.e., I’d been working mostly in Justice Brennan’s papers so I got a nice selfie with his portrait. It’s amazing how ‘close we’d become’ with these justices, just by going through their paper trails.

To top our visit all off, we saw Chief Justice Roberts, in the flesh. We were in his airspace. We breathed his air. This could easily be considered the highlight of my academic life. We had walked out of a room which displayed a handful of the portraits of previous Chief Justices and had entered the hallway to continue on to another location. Our group didn’t immediately realize what was happening, but a man briskly walked by us and entered a conference room. It was him. We had a Roberts sighting. Some of us were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of his face, others just his torso. I had only seen his left hand as he was closing the door. I bet he holds circulated opinions, dissents, concurrences, and memos with that hand! 😉

To those non-Sup Court nerds out there, which I suspect is the bulk of the population, I leave you with this analogy. Imagine taking a basic, touristy tour of the White House. Then, unexpectedly, YOU ARE SUDDENLY GRACED BY THE PRESENCE OF THE PRESIDENT. *Poof* he was gone as quickly as he had appeared.

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The end of the beginning

An update from Austin, a sophomore majoring in economics, public policy and political science, with a minor in law and legal reasoning, who is conducting research on the differing “absolutisms” of Justice Black and Justice Douglas’ First Amendment Freedom of Expression jurisprudence:

Having been back in Dallas for a couple days, I have had a chance to step back and reflect on the whole experience of studying in the Library of Congress with my classmates for a week.

The second half of the week proved as exciting, if not more, than the first. We got to tour the institution that we have been so closely studying, and even caught a glimpse of Chief Justice John Roberts in one of the conference rooms. The Supreme Court is an astoundingly beautiful building and truly reflects the significance of the work performed within its walls. Standing behind the podium where lawyers argue in front of the Justices (who are only a few feet away at most) was a surreal feeling. The next day we made our way to the Capitol for a tour and a visit to the House gallery.

Tourism aside, our research also picked up as the week went on, and we got a better feel for what we were doing and how best to do it. The incredibleness of our opportunity really hit me when we recognized Linda Greenhouse, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Supreme Court reporter, whom I have read on many occasions. She was going through the same papers I had just a few tables in front of me. I also understand that we helped break a record for number of boxes requested in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress. One day (Thursday, I think) the division served more boxes than it had in some ten years.

Surprisingly, some of the most fascinating material I discovered was by accident, and it didn’t have to do with the paper I am currently writing, but the one I wrote for Dr. Kobylka’s Constitutional Law class last semester. This just demonstrates that these things don’t disappear after the paper/class is over.

After a week of intense research, the work really is just beginning. It is time to organize all the newly gathered information and translate it into a 25-page scholarly research paper.

I’d really like to thank the staff at the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress, the Honors Program, the Richter Foundation, and Dr. Kobylka for an unforgettable week.

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A connection to a defining moment

An update from Brandon F., a sophomore political science and accounting major who is conducting research on the development and eventual end of Brown v. Board’s doctrine of “All Deliberate Speed…”:

Looking back on the week, all I can say is WOW!

Spring Break in Washington, D.C., turned out to be the most academically satisfying experience of my life. My research, which focused on the period of desegregation, gave me a new sense of the magnitude of the Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education. The papers at the Library of Congress allowed me to look directly through the eyes of the Supreme Court Justices, an experience that was truly one of a kind. Each day I was able to examine the evolution of the cases, making me feel as if I was in the room when the decisions were made. This feeling, of being directly tied to a defining historical moment, is not one I will soon forget.

Although sightseeing was brief, without a doubt the coolest moment of the trip was our tour of the Supreme Court. Being inside the Courtroom and walking up to the Bench was a Supreme Court nerd’s dream. Unbelievably, we then caught a glimpse of Chief Justice John Roberts in one of the Court’s many conference rooms!

Over the course of the week our class grew more and more unified, eventually becoming a mini-family. Although the research aspect was amazing, it is the small moments with my many new friends that defined the trip.

In conclusion, I would like to thank my classmates, the Richter Foundation, Professor Kobylka, and especially the wonderful employees of the Library of Congress Manuscript Division for making this week possible.

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Rich week of research

An update from Taylor, a sophomore majoring in political science and Spanish who is conducting research on school prayer decisions during the 1980s and early 1990s:

I’m back in Dallas, and I can’t believe it was already a week ago that we were checking in to get our readers’ cards at the Library of Congress.

Eric and Taylor with Justice Blackmun's portrait

Eric and Taylor with Justice Blackmun’s portrait

The second half of the week was just as busy as the first half. Thursday started out with some more research in the Madison building before we set out on our tour of the Supreme Court. From the outside, the Court is truly imposing (even if we couldn’t see the front because they were renovating the marble). On the inside, it was enlightening to sit in the actual courtroom and see the place where all the decisions I had been researching were argued before the justices. The opportunity to see the courtroom, the conference rooms, and the library gave me more of an appreciation for how the Court functions as a governmental institution.

After the tour, I found Harry Blackmun’s portrait for a photo-op since I had been working through his papers all week. Before the trip began, I read 13 cases concerning religion in schools spanning from 1980 to 1994, and I planned to look into the files for all 13 cases. Fortunately, Blackmun’s files are dense with multiple drafts of all the majority opinions, dissents, and concurrences along with his conference notes and personal musings. All of this information let me map out the timeline of each case’s decision-making process while tracking the development in the justices’ ideologies.

Blackmun might be my favorite justice because he kept such thorough notes on every case, which allowed me to flesh out the dynamics of the court so much more than the final opinions show. Although this kept me busy reading and scanning all week, by Saturday afternoon I was finishing up my last case right on time to make our 6:30 flight home.
As I wheeled my last batch of boxes up to the front desk of the reading room, I realized how unique this entire experience was and how privileged I am to be able to spend a week digging through original Supreme Court documents alongside established researchers like Linda Greenhouse (she was nice enough to take a photo with the class).

Working with primary sources such as these for a term paper is something I did not even know was possible for undergraduate students; it gave me great insight into some of the methods political science researchers use when they investigate different areas of politics and the law.

Now that we’re back in Dallas, the work continues as I analyze all the information I found in D.C. and synthesize it with the secondary literature to finish my term paper. Spring Break 2013 was an unforgettable experience with a group of people I will never forget, and I am looking forward to seeing the results of their research as we finish out the semester.

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Our ‘scholarly conversation’

An update from Brandon B., a third-year political science, history and English major who is conducting research on “swing Justices” on the Court:

After an abbreviated day of research on Saturday and a long stay at the airport, we made it back to D/FW airport about 9 that evening. The week really flew by, and I was digging through files at the library basically until we had to start packing up.

Considering the breadth of my research project, I knew that I likely would not get through everything I needed, but I was amazed at how much I did manage to see. All things considered, I probably ended up with significant qualitative data on over 50 Supreme Court cases (some of which I hadn’t even heard of before I came on the trip). Now begins the arduous task of assembling and analyzing all the copies and scans I made while at the LOC. I am heartened by the fact that Professor Kobylka so graciously gave us the week off class, but I also know I’ll be no less busy going through all my notes.

Though I can’t say that I was nervous about how awesome this trip would be or how great the group of people was accompanying me, my expectations were still surpassed. I was amazed not only by the sheer volume of data I uncovered, but also at how well everyone else in the class did with their research. I still remember the first time I went on this trip 2 years ago. This class was my first experience with the political science department at SMU, and since I was one of very few freshmen I didn’t know most of the upperclassmen in the seminar. I was so nervous about my research, and I was hardly the most outgoing person. However, on this trip I can’t say that anyone was as fearful as I was last time. Everyone got along so well, no one ever had a problem discussing their research with one another, and it truly felt like we were part of a scholarly conversation.

I know that both I and Professor Kobylka have been truly impressed by the passion of everyone in the class, and I know that everyone is going to write a stellar paper when the semester ends. I’m looking forward to meeting with everyone in class again next week so we can all finish out the semester strong.

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Keeping the momentum going

An update from Katelyn, a sophomore majoring in journalism, Spanish and political science, and conducting research on the Supreme Court’s opinions on student rights:

It’s now Saturday evening, and as I sit 30,000 feet in the air on my flight back to Dallas, I finally have time to reflect on my whirlwind experience in Washington, D.C.

When we came to D.C. early Monday morning, I couldn’t conceptualize what it was I was about to do. I knew two things: (1) I had research to conduct in the justices’ papers in the Library of Congress, and (2) my Spring Break was going to be unlike any other.

I knew I was in for a great experience, but I really could never expect the extent I would bond with my classmates and grow intellectually.

Thank you to the Richter Foundation and Professor Kobylka for the incredible opportunity to do something few undergraduates anywhere are able to do. I am so grateful that we, the 13 “homies” of PLSC 3330, had the chance to conduct individual research in primary sources under the guidance of an expert, insightful professor, and patient mentor.

Before this class, I had never used a library finding aid and didn’t know what the papers of the justices contained. Now, after roughly 40 hours in the Library of Congress, I can comfortably call myself competent in both areas.

The six days we spent in D.C. went far too quickly. The days slipped away in the midst of digging through folders in the Library, slurping milkshakes in the evenings, and going on coffee runs for extra momentum.

And we need that momentum to keep going. Our experience doesn’t end when we land in Dallas. We still have documents to sift through, hypotheses to analyze, and answers to find.

But I think after six fantastic, busy days in D.C., it’s time for a quick nap. Luckily, I have two more hours left in the flight. From the Capitol to the Hilltop, this is one trip I’ll be dreaming about.

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Scholarly madness

An update from Jacqueline, a junior majoring in political science and psychology who is conducting research on Justice Black’s views on expression and the First Amendment:

All good things must come to an end. However, classifying this experience as “good” would be a grave understatement. This past week was phenomenal. As I sit in my room in Dallas, I can’t help but feel nostalgia for Room 359, long days in the Library of Congress, and our ragtag gang.

The justices’ papers truly enlightened my research. Unfortunately, Justice Black burned most of his papers. He thought publishing the personal notes would impair candid deliberation among the justices. While I wish his papers were more complete, it made the few treasures I found all the more exciting. Rifling through his papers was like going on a mad scavenger hunt for information yielding insight to his jurisprudence. I’m considering writing to Justice Scalia and Roberts so that I can look through their papers in the future and hopefully find my letters! Now that’s what I call fan mail…

With Justice Hugo Black’s portrait

Researching in the Library of Congress was only one of the many incredible aspects of this trip. Bonding with my fellow nerdy, Supreme Court-loving classmates was just as incredible. Before D.C. we were just students taking the same class. Now, we are one big family. Just as the colonies merged into a single nation, 13 students, along with Papa Kobylka, merged into a supportive and eccentric circle of friends. As the Seal of the United States says, E pluribus unum. Out of many, one. It will feel strange to walk without 13 other people by my side. We went everywhere together. In fact, the farthest I ever walked by myself was the 20 feet to the circulation desk to pick up more files!

This experience would not have been possible without Professor Kobylka, the Richter Foundation, and SMU. I am so thankful to have a professor as intelligent, inspiring, and dedicated to his students as is Professor Kobylka. I also can’t fully express my appreciation for SMU and the Richter Foundation funding this opportunity. SMU has given my peers and me an experience that most undergraduates can only dream about.

Justice Black’s papers

From the overflowing files to the metro rides (and naps), milkshakes, my one-time run on the Custis Trail, and Supreme Court chitchats, this Spring Break is one for the books. It was truly scholarly madness. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Hearing the Justices’ “voices”

An update from Anna, a senior majoring in history and anthropology, who is conducting research on sex discrimination under the 14th Amendment Equal Protection clause:

I can hardly believe that a week ago I was packing my bag, ready to head off for a week in D.C. I can still remember waiting at the airport — uncertain of what I could accomplish in such a short time and, too, wondering what I might take away from this experience.

Now that I’m back home in Dallas, I can honestly say that my research time at the Library of Congress passed way too quickly, but with more than a hundred pages of typed notes, I feel proud of the work that I accomplished during my stay. And yet, it’s the intangibles as a result of this opportunity — my growth as an academic, a historian, and a soon-to-be educator — that I’ll carry with me for much longer.

I’m sure it’ll sound a bit crazy, but I say, without hesitation, that I loved every minute I spent in the Library of Congress. For all of the hours that I’ve invested in the justices’ files — Brennan, Blackmun, White, and Marshall — I’ve grown so attached to their work, their handwritten notes and thoughts scratched on memos and draft opinions. This is as close as I can get to hearing their “voice,” understanding what they really thought about their cases and why they did or didn’t stand by their convictions.

At times it even seemed like I could feel what they were going through in coming to a judgment, what obstacles stood in the way of making difficult legal decisions with real and sometimes serious consequences. I knew as I read through their files that the decisions they were making would have a lasting and influential impact on the U.S. legal, political, and socio-cultural landscape for decades to come. And now, having gotten to know these men through their historical works, I feel like I’m glimpsing some truth that I otherwise would never have the opportunity to see in the final published opinions.

My time in the Library of Congress archives passed by unbelievably quickly — each day the 5 o’clock bell would sound, and even after a full day of reading and note-taking, I was never ready to leave it behind. Maybe for the first time in my academic career, I would have been happy to pull an “all-nighter,” just for the opportunity to stay in the room and keep reading. Just being able to absorb the details of these lives and stories, to lose myself for hours at a time inside the minds of these great justices — there’s no question I learned a great deal about my research topic, and through my research, a greater sense of who these justices were and what they believed to be important. And, too, a better understanding of myself and what I believe to be important.

In closing, I just want to say, again, how thankful I am to have been given this amazing opportunity. And, thank you to Professor Kobylka, to my travel companions, and to everyone who has shared this journey through our blog entries … Anna

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Groundhog Week

An update from Kristine, a sophomore majoring in real estate finance and minoring in law and legal reasoning and Spanish, who is researching Justice Byron White’s position in libel cases over his tenure on the Court and why he ultimately called for the reversal of his opinion in the 1964 case New York Times v. Sullivan:

I am finally sitting here at the airport ready and able to decompress everything that I have taken in this week.

I have kept myself on a fairly tight schedule in order to make sure I wasn’t too tired for each next day’s work because I was determined to run every morning with my favorite professor.  For those of you who don’t know, he has run every day for 3333 days.  This morning was actually number 3333, so that was pretty exciting!  I know for sure he will make it to 4444, but he doesn’t seem to think so, but then again what does he know! (or what do I know!?)

So to tell you all about my week: to say the least, it has been incredible.  Not only have I learned so much working in the papers of the Justices, but I have bonded with all of my amazing classmates.  You all know the phrase “misery loves company.” I guess you could say that phrase applied to this week minus the “misery” part.  I have loved every minute of being here; we have shared so many laughs, so many meals, and so much knowledge with each other.  I didn’t know this before, but it makes life so much easier when you have people to share and compare like information with!

Now that we are headed home, for the next month or so of school my time will be spent organizing and digesting all of the information I have taken from the Library of Congress.  I have a lot of work to do on my paper, but I can honestly say I am pretty excited.  The paper topic I chose is one that has barely been touched by other researchers, so hopefully I have researched the right information to be able to unfold the best inference possible to intelligently answer my question at hand.

I have to thank Professor Kobylka because without him I would have never had, nor taken, this opportunity.  He has pushed me to be the best student I can be and he has never stopped believing in me (he hates when I say these things), but it truly is a gift to have a Professor who cares this much about his students, and for that I am forever grateful.

A special thank you to the Richter Foundation for funding this trip for us.  It really was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I am so glad I got the opportunity to go on.

Peace out, DC.

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