Mu’Min, part 3!

Hope everyone out there had a nice weekend. Today we finish the front page of Justice Blackmun’s conference notes in Mu’Min v. Virginia and take a look at what Justice John Paul Stevens had to say in the case.

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Stevens began by saying he agreed that the Chief Justice’s concern regarding where the line would be drawn was proper. He also noted that it was an unusual demand here in this particular case. Getting to the heart of what Mu’Min was asking the Court to reverse, Stevens indicated it was perfectly normal to ask what the information was that jurors had been exposed to. Looking forward to what sort of opinion he would support, however, Stevens indicated a preference for any opinion to be written narrowly; in particular, he believed that the circumstances required that level of questioning. Finally, he makes some sort of remark regarding the dissent — something that we’re both still scratching our heads over. It seems to read “So mi,” but that doesn’t make much sense. Anyone care to help? Head over here to give us your suggestions!

Tomorrow (really, tomorrow!), we turn the page — literally — to see what Justice Sandra Day O’Connor had to say after her colleague. And, for those of you keeping score at home, the vote count at this point is 3-2 in favor of reversal.

Mu’Min, part 2!

We resume our deep dive of what took place in Mu’Min v. Virginia by looking at Justice Blackmun’s notes for Justice Byron White, who, as the senior most associate justice, spoke immediately after Chief Justice Rehnquist.

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Blackmun records that White was a tentative vote to affirm. White indicated that he wasn’t at rest in this case, but headed towards affirming the lower court decision. He question whether the trial judge should have gone farther with regards to overseeing the questioning of potential jurors. White also observed a factual aspect of the trial court judge’s behavior in the case, namely that the judge had interviewed prospective jurors in groups of four (as opposed to as an entire population).

After Justice White spoke, the next to speak was Justice Thurgood Marshall. Marshall, according to Blackmun’s notes said virtually nothing. Indeed, as we show below, only a single symbol appears in Marshall’s space. This symbol meant reverse, which made the vote 2-1 in favor of affirming the lower court.

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Justice Blackmun himself spoke next. His recording of his own position is almost as brief as that of Marshall’s. He merely indicates that he is a tentative vote to reverse and reveals that he is “not at rest” with regards to this position.

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At this point four justices have voted: The Chief and White would affirm (though White perhaps is movable) and Marshall and Blackmun indicate a preference for reversal (though, again, Blackmun might not be a firm vote). Four down, five to go. Check back tomorrow as we finish the “first page” of the sheet and begin to work our way through page two!

This Day in History: February, 22nd

On this day in 1991, the U.S. Supreme Court met to discuss and cast preliminary votes in the case of Mu’Min v. Virginia. At issue in the case was whether criminal defendants have a Sixth Amendment right, when selecting potential jurors, to know the content of what information potential jurors had about a case. When the Court met after oral argument to discuss the case, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist was the first to speak. Although no recording exists of conference, thanks to the notes of Justice Harry A. Blackmun, we have a unique window into what took place at One First Street Northeast on this unusually warm day in February.

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Justice Blackmun’s Conference Notes in 90-5193

The Chief Justice indicated that he would affirm the lower court decision against Mu’Min. He began by observing that none of the jurors in the case had formed an opinion. He then noted that Mu’Min, the petitioner in the case, had conceded a number of the Court’s existing precedents: Irvin v. Down (1961), Murphy v. Florida (1975), and Patton v. Yount (1964). He also expressed a belief that Irvin was special. The Chief next opined that only in issues of race had the Court imposed a concrete requirement. He then suggested it was a better place to have allowed more voir dire, but then wondered where the Court would draw the line. He further observed that there was no showing of a wave of public passion in this case. His final thought was that he had a desire to leave the door open a little.

And so began the Court’s consideration of a case where one man’s life was in the balance.  Check back tomorrow, when we turn our focus to what some of the justices after Rehnquist had to say about the case. Between now and then, head over to our Zooniverse page to join the 935+ citizen scientists who have completed over 32,000 classification for this project. Or, you can head to our talk boards where you can discuss this post.

We’re Open for Discovery! Join Today!

U.S. Supreme Court justices cast votes in complete secrecy during weekly meetings, which only justices are allowed to attend. During these meetings, the justices discuss, deliberate, and make initial decisions on cases they have heard – many of which address the most important legal and policy issues in the U.S. The written notes the justices themselves take during these meetings provide the only record of what was said and by whom. SCOTUS Notes seeks to engage experts, amateurs, and Court watchers alike in a unique collaboration to transcribe these notes. This collaboration promises to provide new and important insights into the most powerful and, perhaps, most secretive of our three branches of government.

Thanks to a three-year federal grant from the National Science Foundation, the University of Minnesota, Michigan State University, and Zooniverse, are proud to launch SCOTUSnotes, a crowdsourcing project, to transcribe and decipher a collection of 12,600 pages of notes taken by Justices Harry A. Blackmun and William J. Brennan. This extraordinarily rare collection of papers housed at the Library of Congress provides insights into the Court’s conference in cases decided between 1959 and 1994 with overlapping notes taken by Blackmun and Brennan between 1970 and 1990.

Through crowdsourcing, we hope to transcribe these justices’ conference notes with greater efficiency and accuracy than could be done by hand with a limited staff, expediting the process of providing open access to these important historical legal documents. As science has extended its workforce with citizen scientists who collect data for scientific research, so too are social science scholars now engaging citizen archivists.

Visit our project page at SCOTUS Notes to get started! Get in touch with either Ryan Black or Tim Johnson, the project co-directors, via email (SCOTUSNotes@gmail.com).

Coming soon!

On February 13, 2018, join our research team to help learn about what took place during the Supreme Court’s conference meetings! Contact Ryan Black and Tim Johnson, co-principal investigators, with any questions or comments! (SCOTUSNotes@gmail.com)