This month’s Foundry Series event, Politics and the Supreme Court, features Timothy Huebner of Rhodes College. Dr. Huebner was kind enough to answer a couple questions before the event. Make plans to join us on the 24th.
How did you become interested in your topic and what about your work still fascinates you?
My interest in the Civil War dates back to childhood, but my interest in the Supreme Court developed in graduate school, when my graduate mentor, Kermit L. Hall, was editing the first edition of the Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States. As a research assistant to Prof. Hall, I cross-referenced and copy-edited every single article in that massive volume, and ever since then I’ve been fascinated by the work of the Court. So, studying the Court during the Civil War lies at the intersection of these two intellectual passions of mine.
How do you see the topic of your work relating to events or issues in society today?
The history of the Court is always relevant, because each year the Court issues landmark opinions that affect how our government functions and define the scope of our liberties as Americans. During the Civil War era, it was the Dred Scott decision that loomed large in the political landscape and shaped President Lincoln’s response to the Court.
But there seems to always be some current decision or appointment that’s generating controversy. When we were working on the Oxford Companion in 1991, the contentious confirmation hearing for Clarence Thomas were unfolding. Recently, we’ve witnessed a tough political fight over the nomination of Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
From the start, the work of the Court has always been controversial, because we continually debate the Court’s decisions, the merits of those appointed as justices, as well as the appropriate role of the Court in our society. Could any topic be more relevant?
What was the most significant or surprising find during your research?
This is more significant than it is surprising, perhaps, but the Court has always straddled the words of politics. This was certainly true during the Civil War, when Lincoln and Republicans attempted to remake the Court in their own image.
The really interesting thing is that the American public often acknowledges the Court as a political actor at the same time that it expects the highest court in the land to serve as an independent judicial body. This balancing act—of being in the world of politics but not of it—is a tall order for any institution, even one that inhabits a Marble Palace.
Did you discover anything interesting that you did not publish?
Well, I’m still working on the relationship between the Court and the war. I’m now exploring a new project on the history of the Supreme Court during Reconstruction – framed by the death of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney in 1864 and the arrival of Justice L.Q.C. Lamar in 1888, the only ex-Confederate the serve on the Court. I’m especially interested in understanding what the war and freedom meant to the generation of northern Republican justices who came through the war and ended up serving during this era, when the Republican Party dominated national life and policy making.
Are there any social media accounts that you follow, especially that relate to your work (its topic and/or your role as a historian)?
Well, I try to keep up with the current workings of the Supreme Court via Scotusblog http://www.scotusblog.com/ and I also attempt to keep up with what’s being published in legal history via the Legal History Blog – https://legalhistoryblog.blogspot.com/ Other than that, I stay engaged by posting and sharing on my own LinkedIn account and Academia.edu page.