Measuring Congress and the Court: Peabody and Morgan team up

By Kenna Caprio. Photo by Dan Landau.

This article is one in a series delving into faculty/student research across a variety of disciplines at Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Metropolitan Campus and College at Florham.

“I’ve long been interested in the separation of powers and how the three branches of government communicate, navigate and relate to each other,” says Bruce Peabody, College at Florham political science professor and prelaw and legal studies director.

In that spirit, Peabody embarked on a faculty/student research project in 2010 with Kyle Morgan, BA’11.

By probing the online opinions of two Congresses, Peabody (photographed at right) and Morgan provided a portrait of the reactions of representatives regarding recent, big Supreme Court cases.

“There’s no database that I’m aware of, chronicling what lawmakers are saying about the courts on their websites,” Peabody says.

The two presented a paper at a professional conference and wrote a Huffington Post blog entry about the research. This year, the British Journal of American Legal Studies published —in their Spring 2013 edition — a scholarly article by Peabody and Morgan called, “Hope, Fear and Loathing, and the Post-Sebelius Disequilibrium: Assessing the Relationship Between Parties, Congress and Courts in Tea Party America.”

“The big question for this research is: Are we at a tipping point? Will the separation of powers look different in the 21st century? Since the 1960s, the Democrats have looked at the courts as an ally while Republicans have been skeptical,” says Peabody. “That seems to be changing with a steady stream of Republican appointees and input. So, we wanted to find out if our current moment, when Democrats are more likely to challenge courts, represents a sea change or is the exception that proves the rule.”

The research, Morgan points out, helps indicate which social movements — like the Tea Party, for instance — “are able to take advantage of the courts.”

“It’s too early to say, but there’s evidence of significant change. Republicans are going out of their way to praise the courts in a way that looks genuinely different from past behaviors,” says Peabody.

Faculty members often select star students to assist on research; Morgan took Judicial Politics, and other courses, with Peabody.

Student/faculty research gives students a “comparative advantage for graduate school and the job market,” says Peabody. “It’s mentoring, a different kind of teaching, and it’s not an experience that every student will want or need. But it’s fun, rewarding to both parties and a valuable extension of the classroom conversation.”

Morgan — who Peabody refers to as a “talented, quick learner” and “enthusiastic and dedicated” — starts graduate school this fall at Rutgers University, working toward his PhD in political science. Originally, he attended law school but when it didn’t feel right, consulted Peabody along with political science professors Krista Jenkins and John Schiemann for advice. “This close working connection with them — I would not have developed that had I not done research,” Morgan says. The three provided Morgan with the necessary letters of recommendation, and, more importantly, the reassurance he needed to move from law school to a PhD program.

“For students who are inclined to enjoy this stuff, getting into the research side and proving a hypothesis, you get your hands into the meat of political science. That’s a really fantastic experience for a student,” says Morgan. “Faculty/student research has been absolutely invaluable to me. It was probably one of my best experiences at FDU.”

And it may be an experience that continues for Morgan as an FDU alum.

“We could very well continue the project. The data will be more impactful the longer we can chronicle it,” says Peabody. “I’d like to work with him (Morgan) building a data set for the next Congress and not just the House, but Senate too.”

In light of the recent, high profile Supreme Court decisions — on affirmative action, the Voting Rights Act, the Defense of Marriage Act and Proposition 8, amongst others — there appears to be plenty more for Peabody and Morgan to study.

Feature Story from the FDU Newsroom

FDU Office of Public Relations

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