Kevin McMahon  

Kevin McMahon
Assistant Professor of Political Science


It certainly is an interesting time to be a Supreme Court scholar, considering all the recent activity in the judicial branch of government. For Kevin McMahon, it also represents an opportunity to connect classroom teaching with important current events that have grabbed the attention of the entire nation, including college students. McMahon, in his first semester at Trinity, is teaching a senior seminar called “The Politics of Judicial Policy Making.” He notes with obvious understatement that the timing is fortuitous. “It’s great because there haven’t been any Supreme Court appointments for ten years and now there just happen to be two during this semester. It makes it much more interesting for the students because the issues at stake are things they know and care about.”

McMahon moved to the Hartford area from upstate New York last summer with his wife, Stephanie, where he was teaching at the State University of New York, Fredonia. In the mid-nineties, he spent two years teaching in Russia as part of the Civic Education Project. He was attracted to Trinity, he says, because of its size and intellectual vitality. He particularly likes the small class sizes and the opportunity to have extensive interaction with students, both in and out of the classroom. Stephanie, who was a television reporter in Buffalo, is an executive producer of special projects at NBC30 in West Hartford. The couple shares their Farmington home with a cat, Tasha, and a dog, Abbie. 

McMahon wrote his dissertation at Brandeis University on the judicial appointments of presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan. That research led McMahon to focus his attention on FDR’s civil rights record, which he ultimately found to be somewhat misunderstood. “When I was working on the Roosevelt section, I discovered that there was actually a much bigger story to tell,” he says. “When I looked at his judicial policies, as opposed to his legislative policies, I realized that there was a clear attempt on his part to try to convince the Court to be more sympathetic on issues of civil rights. His legislative record is noticeably weak on civil rights, which I think is indicative of the power of the Southern states in Congress at the time, but if you look at the judicial side of things, it’s a different story.”

McMahon tells that story in his book, Reconsidering Roosevelt on Race: How the Presidency Paved the Road to Brown, which won the Richard E. Neustadt Award as the best book on the American presidency in 2004. The award, from the American Political Science Association, is given annually to honor an individual “whose work has incited a broader view of the impact and influence of the presidency.” 

As for the recent spate of Supreme Court activity, McMahon says that people of all eras frequently think they are living in unique times but that history suggests otherwise. “Today, the situation is a little different,” he explains. “No longer are well known politicians like Chief Justice Earl Warren appointed to the Court. Instead, to secure confirmation, presidents seemingly have to search for relatively unknown nominees who have not been deeply involved in the great controversies of the day.”

 


What they’re reading

Stacy Swift  

 

Stacy Swift
Office Coordinator, Community and Institutional Relations


 

One of the most memorable books I’ve read recently is March: A Novel, by Geraldine Brooks. In short, the story imagines the Civil War experiences of Captain March, the absent father in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. While his wife and daughters wait patiently at home in Concord, Massachusetts, March experiences the horrors of war, serious illness, and the difficulty of learning to live with human suffering.

March is a Union chaplain influenced by Thoreau, Emerson and, especially, John Brown. His high-minded ideals are continually thwarted not only by the culture of the times, but by his own ineptitude as well. A staunch abolitionist, he is amazingly naive about human nature. His radical politics are an embarrassment to the less-ideological men, and he is appalled by their lack of abolitionist sentiments and their cruelty. Here his faith in himself and in his religious and political convictions are tested.

Brooks’s novel is beautifully written, and offers a provoking, intimate—and perhaps more complete—portrait of life during the Civil War for the March family. I admit that I was skeptical at first, but March proves to be an enjoyable addition to Louisa May Alcott’s original story.

 

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