Cindy Conlon’s Students Visit Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor

Cindy Conlon’s Students Visit Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor

Cindy Conlon's Students Visit Supreme Court

Nine students in Cindy Conlon’s Supreme Court class had the opportunity to travel to Washington, D.C., to hear oral argument at the Supreme Court and meet with Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Their unique trip also included tours and discussions with legal experts. “Our trip to the Supreme Court was definitely one of the most remarkable experiences I've had as an undergraduate,” says SESP senior Nathalie Rayter.

Conlon’s SESP class had studied the case of McNeill v. U.S. in preparation for hearing oral argument in the case on April 25. Interestingly, McNeill was represented by students and faculty in the Northwestern Supreme Court Practicum at the Northwestern School of Law, and Conlon’s undergraduate students met with Northwestern Practicum Director Jeff Green to discuss the case.

Green even invited the group to attend the briefing for the lawyers, conducted by the Clerk of the Court in the lawyers' lounge. “This, possibly more than anything else, was very rare, and gave us a behind the scenes glimpse of how the Court functions,” says senior Isaac Rottman. Conlon notes, “The clerk did his best to assist the lawyers, providing them with advice on protocol as well as offering them cough drops and aspirin.”

After the argument, the group also heard the reaction of Stephen Gordon, assistant federal public defender from Raleigh, North Carolina, who argued for McNeill. “He explained that he had participated in four moot court argument sessions in preparation, and had anticipated the questions asked by the justices, but could not prepare for the actual intensity of the event,” Conlon says.

SESP junior Jane Merrill, who found this meeting a high point, says, “It was the first time he had argued in front of the Supreme Court and so in some ways, he was experiencing the same things as we were and learning just as we were. It's easy to forget, in reading transcripts and briefs, that the people involved are real people, and we were reminded of this time after time at the Court — both in the lawyers' lounge, with the Clerk of the Court, with the attorney, post-argument, and especially with Justice Sotomayor.”

The highlight of the day was a private meeting with Sotomayor. “She took questions from the students and seemed to speak from the heart. She told us that she hoped to be a justice who continued to grow in that role. She also explained that the ideological labels attached to the justices in the popular press do us all a serious injustice; the decisions they make, she noted, call for a much more complex and nuanced approach than is commonly described,” Conlon recounts. Students describe Sotomayor as genuine, articulate, intelligent, thoughtful and personable.

Senior Katy Bruksch recalls the strong impression Sotomayor made in this way: “As an extension of her own goals, she encouraged each of us to follow our hearts to discover our own ways to positively impact society. Her sincerity, passion, warmth and encouragement were comforting on a personal level, and it is reassuring that such an honorable woman serves on our Supreme Court. My trip to the Supreme Court was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I will certainly never forget!”

As on past trips, Conlon and her students met with the court librarian, Judith Gaskell, who told about her job conducting research to find information that the justices request, and with staff at the National School Boards Association who direct the Supreme Court Amicus Project. Students were able to discuss with Association representatives how they work to influence educational policy by filing briefs in Supreme Court cases.

In addition, SESP graduate Julie Karaba (BS10), who is currently an intern in the Curator's Office at the Supreme Court, guided the Northwestern group on a private tour of the Court. Karaba had taken Conlon’s Supreme Court class when she was a SESP student. Prior to their visit to the Supreme Court, the Northwestern group took a private tour of the Capitol.

The students who were selected for the trip, on the basis of an application, are Nathalie Rayter, Isaac Rottman, Curie Chang, Jane Merrill, Dina Ross, Andrea Rosenkranz, Ana Cunningham, Katie Bruksch and Candise Hill. Rayter, Merrill, Ross and Hill are SESP students. Another participant in the trip was 2010 Golden Apple Award-winning teacher Jacob Gourley. Gourley, a government teacher at Thornton Fractional South High School who audited Conlon’s class.

The question in the McNeill v. U.S. case related to whether a drug conviction under state law can be treated as a serious drug offense for purposes of a longer sentence under federal law. Clifton McNeill had been sentenced to 540 months in prison for firearm and cocaine possession under the federal Armed Career Criminal Act.

Reviewing her experience, Rayter concludes, “Perhaps the most invaluable part of our trip was the exposure to all of the different actors that are involved in the decision-making process of the highest court — the Justices, yes, but also the arguing counsel, the court librarian, amici like the National School Boards Association and members of the court staff, among others. It is an incredible machine, and I feel so lucky to have had such an introduction.”

“I found that everyone who worked at the Supreme Court to be especially genuine, friendly, and earnest to share with us their personal love and experience of the Court,” says WCAS senior Ana Cunningham. “I could never have anticipated the tremendous impression and impact I felt while visiting the Supreme Court and I have developed a greater appreciation and understanding of the importance and relevance of the work that the Justices do in the effort to interpret laws that affect all Americans.”

Rottman comments, “I think it's quite rare that a class can study a specific institution — especially one of such historic importance (in this case, the defining body for one-third of our national government!) — and then not only visit it, but also get such a varied and detailed look. We were incredibly fortunate to be able to go, and I'm very thankful for the opportunity.”

Professor Cindy Conlon, Jake Gourley (2010 Golden Apple award recipient and teacher at Thornton Fractional South High School), Nathalie Rayter, Isaac Rottman, Curie Chang, Jane Merrill, Julie Karaba (BS10, SESP graduate and current Supreme Court intern), Dina Ross, Andrea Rosenkranz, Ana Cunningham, Katie Bruksch and Candise Hill. 

By Marilyn Sherman
Last Modified: 5/4/11