2016 Archives

Research into antebellum Supreme Court justice raises contemporary questions for SMU graduating senior

Tower Scholar A.J. Jeffries studies chief justice in landmark Dred Scott case

May 5, 2017

By Sara Ellington
SMU News

DALLAS (SMU) – Senior A.J. Jeffries brings a new meaning to the phrase, “triple threat.” Already a dedicated student and accomplished athlete on the SMU soccer team, Jeffries managed to also add to his resume an honors project known as a directed thesis on Supreme Court Justice Roger Taney.

A.J. Jeffries
A.J. Jeffries


Update (4/19/2017):
A. J. Jeffries accepted to Stanford Law School. Read more.

Jeffries will be the first Highland Capital Management Tower Scholar to graduate from the program at SMU Commencement Dec. 15. His directed research project as a Tower Scholar is focused on cross-border electricity trade between the United States and Mexico.

But last spring – after being intrigued by his Slavery and the American Republic course – Jeffries decided to take on another research project: He focused on Taney, the chief justice who oversaw the infamous 1857 Dred Scott v. Sanford case that ruled African-Americans were not U.S. citizens.

“I just thought he was a really interesting person, everything about him was really cool,” said Jeffries, whose study evolved from “looking beyond just slavery and at him in general to looking at how the politics of just before the Civil War… really affected him.”

Unfortunately for Jeffries, there is scarce primary source material on Taney online, so after receiving a Richter Research Fellowship, he flew to Washington D.C. over spring break 2016 to utilize the Library of Congress. Spending 10 hours per day rifling through and taking photos of potentially valuable documents, Jeffries said he would only leave periodically for meals.

“I popped out for a PB&J for about three minutes every day,” he laughed. “I got very efficient at eating PB&Js.”

Ed Countryman, University Distinguished Professor of history, was Jeffries’ adviser throughout the semester, and the two met weekly to discuss research updates and Jeffries’ 25-page thesis progress. Political science associate professor Joseph Kobylka also guided him in the methodology of data research at the Library of Congress before his trip, since Kobylka specializes in Supreme Court studies and has taken students to D.C. over spring and summer breaks. Jeffries spent 10-15 hours per week on the paper, on top of his usual course work and soccer practice. Despite the tricky balance, Jeffries affirms it was definitely worth it in the long run.

 “It was genuinely a fun way to spend a lot of hours every week,” said Jeffries. He now hopes to write a book delving further into Taney’s life, since there hasn’t been one written in about 80 years. Upon graduating in December, he plans on heading to law school, meaning Jeffries wouldn’t have time to produce a book until after that’s finished. But, as he intends to go the route of becoming a professor of legal history, it’s safe to assume Jeffries will make time for it.

If there’s one takeaway for Jeffries, it’s that history repeats itself. Even though Taney is still considered toxic — given not only the controversial nature of the Dred Scott case but Taney’s rhetoric in the decision — there are multiple similarities between him and historical and contemporary justices. Jeffries also sees resemblances between the antebellum era and today.

“They’re both eras when our country is about as politically divided as it will ever be,” said Jeffries. “So for example, Dred Scott is compared to Bush v. Gore in terms of cases that just annihilated the Supreme Court’s credibility,” as both were purely political cases that Jeffries believes the court should never have touched.

He also observes that throughout history, justices have let their personal biases and ideologies affect their case decisions, since the court ultimately has no one to answer to but one another. This is what interests him in President-Elect Trump’s potential Supreme Court appointees, and whether they would attempt to overturn gay marriage or Roe v. Wade.

“You don’t really know what someone is going to be like once they get on the court,” said Jeffries, “because there are people like David Souter and Harry Blackmun who were appointed, expected to be staunch conservatives, and they weren’t at all. They were pretty liberal. So I think Trump will run into that issue.”

Jeffries is a triple major in economics, history and public policy and a double minor in philosophy and the Towers Scholar program. The program enables students from a variety of academic backgrounds to combine their academic interests with experience in the real world of public policy. The Scholars learn in classes from experienced policy practitioners and full-time faculty about the policy-making process before putting their education into action in a directed research project on a policy issue of their choice.  Outside the classroom, Scholars experience policy in practice through exclusive on-campus events, private meetings with practitioners, and a trip to meet with professional policymakers in Washington D.C.

Read a Tower Center blog Q&A on Jeffries here.