Chalking Up Experience
Life Teaches A ScholarChristopher P. Banks, professor of political science, has written books about the U.S. Supreme Court and its judicial decision-making. He can speak easily and authoritatively about the Court’s policy-making, politics and personalities.
But he harbors the uncomfortable memory of one of his first visits to the Court, when he was a graduate student in political science at the University of Virginia (UVA).
An oral argument had just begun when the lawyer who was speaking addressed Chief Justice William Rehnquist as “Mr. Justice Rehnquist.”
“I will never forget the lawyer shrinking into the floor when Rehnquist quickly interrupted him by leaning over the bench, staring him down with an icy glare, and reminding him that it was ‘Mr. Chief Justice Rehnquist,” Banks recalls.
The lawyer, stammering, never recovered his poise. The incident reminds Banks only too well of the mistakes he made as a young lawyer who argued civil and criminal cases.
Before he went to graduate school at UVA, Banks attended law school at the University of Dayton, and he had a career as a lawyer in Connecticut. For six years he worked for law firms there, then formed his own – Banks and Banks, a partnership with his father, who had earned his own law degree after retiring from Citicorp.
Even as he was practicing law full-time, Banks took additional work as an academic, teaching real estate, criminal and business law at two universities in southwestern Connecticut.
“It became clear for me that I love teaching,” he said. And research. “I really enjoyed learning about the law.”
Not even a bite from the political bug deterred him. He ran for the state legislature as a Democrat in the heavily Republican southwestern Connecticut towns of Wilton and Redding (“Let’s get our act together” was his slogan) but he lost. He was encouraged to run again and was appointed to the state Human Rights Commission by then-Gov. William O’Neill, a Democrat.
But after soul-searching, Banks took another path, applying to the political science Ph.D. program at UVA. Research was a more powerful draw than politics, and he knew that he needed to supplement his law degree with the research training of a Ph.D.
“It was kind of a dicey thing for me to leave the law and put my political career on hold,” he said.
Into academiaHis professors and mentors at Virginia, one of whom became his co-author, inspired him. His Ph.D. dissertation became his first book: Judicial Politics in the D.C. Circuit Court, published by John Hopkins University Press.
Banks joined Kent State in 2006 as an associate professor after teaching at the University of Akron. He was the political science department’s graduate coordinator for three years and is now its prelaw advisor. In April 2013, he was named Scholar of the Month.
Last fall he published The U.S. Supreme Court and New Federalism: From the Rehnquist to the Roberts Court, with co-author John C. Blakeman, a graduate school colleague and a faculty member at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. It examines how the Supreme Court’s rulings have shaped the “new federalism,” which began with Rehnquist and has evolved in the Roberts Court.
Unlike the Rehnqust Court, the Roberts Court is showing signs of taking on big issues, he said – Obamacare, gun rights and immigration, among them.
As Banks points out in the book, scholars have shown that “legal arguments presented to the Court matter considerably” in influencing its decisions. That point was brought home to him as a UVA graduate student when he first met a sitting U.S. Supreme Court justice, David Souter. He asked Souter whether oral arguments made a difference in his decision- making, since justices have extensive law clerk and written briefings to rely on. He was surprised to find that Souter said “yes” and had kept a record: A third of the cases he decided were influenced by oral advocacy.
Banks’s research on law and the courts and Constitutional law have led him into fresh areas of investigation: human rights, terrorism, and the FISA court, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that was authorized in 1978 but which expanded in use after the September 11 terrorist attacks.
As a political science scholar, Banks draws on the background and perspective of his days as a lawyer and litigator.
“I know what it’s like to pass the bar, to have legal training, to argue before a court,” he said. His campaign experience has given him first-hand knowledge of the political process, which helps his research, too.
A Ph.D. degree, on the other hand, grounded him in the less advocacy-oriented process of scientific investigation.
“It allowed me to understand how to do research and test a hypothesis based on hard evidence.” And it allowed him to seek the researcher’s prize: new, undiscovered knowledge.