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Summer Research students study courts’ influence on civil rights discourse

As the Supreme Court of the United States has announced decisions on several high-profile cases this week, many people have been reading their judicial rulings and scouring the Internet for articles about the cases and the issues they addressed.

That is what this entire summer has been like for Penny Trieu ’15 and Connor Dye ’15, who are helping Vincent Vecera, a Randolph political science professor, continue research on the way judicial decisions affect public discourse by declaring civil rights.

People on either side of an issue might start their discussions based on the prudence of the policies they support. But if a court issues a decision that declares a civil right, the argument changes, he said. “Once you’ve taken the argument to the rights level, you have to respond with a rights argument,” he said. “With rights arguments, you can’t negotiate.”

But proving that idea requires studying the way public discourse shifts after a court renders a decision that defines a civil right.

Trieu and Dye each approached Vecera to ask about opportunities with Randolph’s Summer Research program. He asked them to take a part in his ongoing research by looking at court decisions on two topics. Trieu studied several state court decisions that concluded that individuals have a right to same-sex marriage. Dye explored Supreme Court decisions related to rights of gun ownership.

The students found news and opinion articles on the topics of same-sex marriage or gun control before and after the court cases. They classified each argument as being based on civil rights or based on other ideas.

They only recently amassed enough data to begin detailed analysis, but Trieu said there did seem to be a shift towards rights-based arguments about same-sex marriage after court rulings affirm such rights. (Although the Supreme Court issued two rulings related to same-sex marriage laws this week, they will not be incorporated into Trieu’s research because they did not declare a constitutional right to marriage.)

Dye said he saw similar patterns in arguments about gun control and second amendment rights. Other events tend to also impact the discourse, but only for a limited time. “Whenever there is a big tragedy, there will be a lot more arguments about regulating gun ownership for mentally ill people,” Dye said. “Then they turn off to another argument, like the rights argument.”

This summer has helped Trieu and Dye learn a lot about judicial rulings and public policy, but it also has taught them patience with the sometimes tedious art of research, as they each had to read hundreds of articles. Vecera assures them that the effort is worth the reward of approaching and answering important questions.

“The things that make research worthwhile aren’t necessarily found in the day-to-day action of it,” he said. “You feel them at the beginning and the end.”

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