Highest court honors professor for research paper

Helen J. Knowles knew she was receiving a prestigious award in June. She didn’t know, until she showed up for the ceremony, that the chief justice of the Supreme Court would hand her the award in the historic court chamber.

Knowles, who recently joined SUNY Oswego’s political science faculty, attended the ceremony in Washington, D.C., because the Supreme Court Historical Society selected her paper, “May It Please the Court?: The Solicitor General’s Not So ‘Special’ Relationship—Archibald Cox and the 1963-1964 Reapportionment Cases,” for the Hughes-Gossett Student Prize. The honor brings a $500 cash prize and publication in the November issue of the Journal of Supreme Court History.

That all seemed an unlikely scenario when Knowles wrote the original version for a Constitutional theory seminar while attending Boston University in fall 2001. “I wanted to do research about the reapportionment cases from the early 1960s using the resources at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston, and the final article ended up being a variation on that seminar paper,” Knowles explained.

Even the direction her article took was unexpected. Knowles wanted to look into the work of Cox, the solicitor general for the Kennedy administration who argued for reapportionment of districts that disadvantaged blacks in the voting process. She started looking for political backlash to the landmark 1962 Baker v. Carr case, “but I couldn’t find any,” Knowles admitted. “The political backlash came two years later.”

As U.S. solicitor general, Cox did the administration’s bidding in asking the Supreme Court to intervene in malapportioned districting—but was himself not in favor of the court taking such a strong stance, Knowles noted. “He consistently said in the memos I read that he thought if he took this position, it could trigger a Constitutional crisis,” Knowles said. “Archibald Cox was between a rock and a hard place.”

The solicitor general is seen as having a special relationship with the court, but this isn’t always relevant in reality, she added.

To the surprise of Cox and many others, not only did the Supreme Court take the case but expanded its powers by ruling on specific plans by states in subsequent years. “Cox lost out personally, but it was a triumph for reapportionment” and civil rights, Knowles said.

Knowles later updated and submitted the paper for the American Political Science Association’s 2004 conference. Then she sent it out to several law review journals, and the Supreme Court Historical Society was the most interested.

“Completely out of the blue, I get a letter saying they want to publish this article and want to give me a prize for it,” Knowles said. “Perhaps the most amazing thing is that no one told me I would be receiving the award in the actual courtroom from Chief Justice John Roberts.”

At SUNY Oswego, Knowles will teach the courses “Critical Thinking in Politics,” “American Constitutional Law” and, appropriately, “The Supreme Court.”

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(Posted: Aug 23, 2006)