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Kalman headshot in front of bookcase
Laura Kalman, photo credit Gary Silk.

Unfolding Research: Delving into the Warren Court with Laura Kalman

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Unfolding Research is a recurring series in which people answer questions about their experiences conducting research in the Manuscript Division. This entry was written by Laura Kalman.

Tell us about yourself: Who are you, where you are from, and what were you researching?

I’m one of the few native Angelenos of my vintage. I was born in Los Angeles in 1955 and went to college (Pomona College in Claremont) and law school (University of California, Los Angeles) in Southern California. After briefly working for a public interest law firm while I applied to grad school, I went to Yale, where I received my PhD. That didn’t mean my geographical alliances shifted. I was much influenced by an acquaintance’s advice that the prestige of an Ivy League degree multiplied exponentially every mile west of the Mississippi. The first day I met my beloved dissertation adviser, John Blum, I volunteered that I wanted to end up back in California. And I always told my future husband, whom I met in grad school, that in marrying me, he would be marrying the state of California. (He didn’t quite believe me.) I thought it was a miracle when the University of California, Santa Barbara ultimately offered us jobs there—me in history and him in religious studies. I retired in 2020.

I am a legal and political historian of the United States since World War I. Among other things, I’ve written about the history of legal education, legal thought, the legal profession, and the Supreme Court. My current research project that brings me here for the academic year focuses on the history of the Warren Court during the 1950s and 1960s. I bring to it my own history with that court. My most recent book, FDR’s Gambit: The Court Packing Fight and the Rise of Legal Liberalism (2022), explores the impact of the 1937 court-packing fight in shaping the civil rights and civil liberties revolution that the Warren Court spearheaded with decisions like Brown v. Board of Education and Miranda v. Arizona. My two books about Yale Law School examine its role in creating, shaping, defending, and critiquing the Warren Court and the court’s impact on law students and legal education. The Strange Career of Legal Liberalism, an intellectual history of constitutional theory, concentrated on the impact of the Warren Court on legal scholarship. I have written a biography of one Warren Court member, Abe Fortas, and in The Long Reach of the Sixties, I studied changing patterns in the selection, nomination, and confirmation of justices. The Warren Court has been part of my life for a long time.

How would you describe your experience researching in the Manuscript Division at the Library of Congress?

Sublime. I first did research here for my dissertation in the 1980s (!), and I’ve worked here for every book I’ve written, save one on politics in the middle and late 1970s. I’ve always loved the experience, but because of teaching and family responsibilities, I’ve never been able to spend more than a week or two at a time. I’ve long dreamed of spending an academic year here. The collection related to legal figures, particularly former Supreme Court justices, is unparalleled. The archivists know the holdings. And unlike some other archives that do scheduled “pulls” and limit the amount you can request (e.g., ten boxes at 10 a.m. and ten at 2 p.m.), you can call for boxes whenever you’ve finished the four they’ve brought out. It encourages you to take chances, which makes the research more fun. So does the staff’s enthusiasm, friendliness, and helpfulness, and willingness to stay open on Saturdays!

In general, what are your research strategies and how have they changed over the years?

When I first started coming to the Library of Congress, we used Xerox machines to copy documents. You met a lot of people while you waited for the machines. But it was expensive and time-consuming. Now we bring in our cell phones. That means I accumulate far larger collections for my at-home use than I did in earlier years when I paid for Xeroxes, stood in line, and kept a duplicate set of everything in my mother-in-law’s house in case my photocopies were destroyed. But I think it’s all to the good. It’s certainly less stressful and expensive, though picking up and going to an archive is still very costly. My research strategy is unchanged. I mark everything I think that might be useful with a Post-it Note and return to it frequently while writing. I go through lots of Post-its!

Handwritten note on Supreme Court stationery
Note, Felix Frankfurter to Earl Warren, May 17, 1954, concerning Chief Justice Warren’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, Earl Warren Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

What collections did you explore at the Library of Congress? What did they reveal about the Earl Warren Court that pushed your research further?

So far, most of my time here this time has been spent in the papers of the justices—Earl Warren, Harold H. Burton, William J. Brennan, Felix Frankfurter, Hugo LaFayette Black, and William O. Douglas, Robert H. Jackson, Byron R. White (the only boring collection I’ve encountered), and Thurgood Marshall. Then there are the papers of lower court judges/lawyers, like Simon Ernest Sobeloff and Joseph L. Rauh; journalists, like Anthony Lewis; and members of Congress, like Emanuel Celler. Altogether, it’s enough to keep me off the streets until I leave in mid-June. (I plan to spend the summer on the road visiting the John Marshall Harlan Papers at Princeton, the Potter Stewart and Abe Fortas Papers at Yale, the collections of the Warren Court critics at Harvard, the Frederick Moore Vinson and Stanley Forman Reed Papers at the University of Kentucky, the Charles Whittaker Papers at the University of Missouri, and the Tom C. Clark Papers at the University of Texas.) I am still assimilating the material that I madly photograph. But so far, I’m most impressed by (1) the Warren Court’s sensitivity to public opinion and, (2) the relevance of the justices’ life experiences to their opinions and how they operated as an institutional unit. It’s clear that each justice made a difference, which to me indicates the importance of judicial biography to understanding the court. Just as Arthur Goldberg’s replacement of Felix Frankfurter in 1962 launched the court’s glory days for liberals, so it made a difference when Potter Stewart followed Harold Burton.

What’s the funniest or most interesting document you encountered in the Manuscript Division on this project?

I’ve laughed aloud so many times that I hate to single out just one. But the most surprising thing to me (and sometimes the reason I’ve laughed aloud) involve the very obvious breadcrumbs Supreme Court justices left to set out their versions of the story.

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