Auburn University professor to receive Hughes-Gossett Senior Prize

Published: June 02, 2017
Updated: October 09, 2017
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Steven Brown, a professor of political science in the College of Liberal Arts at Auburn University, has earned a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity through hard work and scholarly research.

Brown is the recipient of the 2017 Hughes-Gossett Senior Prize for the best article in the Journal of Supreme Court History. The award ceremony will be part of a black tie gala event at the United States Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., on June 5, where Brown will receive the award from one of the Supreme Court justices.

"In addition to being presented the award by a current justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, I think the greatest part is that the board of editors who selects the awards–a who’s who of legal historians and constitutional scholars–would recognize my work in this manner. It means a great deal to me and makes me incredibly grateful," Brown said.

Brown’s article, "The Girard Will and Twin Landmarks of Supreme Court History," explored two landmark cases that arose from one will, 100 years apart.

"I was looking up information on John McKinley, the first U.S. Supreme Court Justice from Alabama, which brought up this interesting case on Stephen Girard, an incredibly wealthy banker and philanthropist who bequeathed nearly his entire fortune to the city of Philadelphia," Brown said.

Girard died on Dec. 26, 1831. In his will, Girard provided funds for a boarding school that would provide a free education for boys between the ages of six and 10. There were two provisions that resulted in two different cases that came before the U.S. Supreme Court–one in 1844 involving religion; the other in 1957 involving race.

"McKinley sat as a justice on the case in 1844, and it was a huge case," Brown said. "It’s like Supreme Court cases we have now that are controversial, but in its day, there was no other case like it–it attracted the attention of the media nationwide and people would flock to Washington, D.C., to listen to them argue this case."

Girard’s will created a boarding school in Philadelphia for "poor white male[s]" who were fatherless. The will also stipulated that no "ecclesiastic, missionary, or minister of any sect" be allowed on the premises. The court ruled to uphold the non-religious component of the will in 1844, but stated that as a government entity, non-white children must also be admitted to the school in 1957.

"I was intrigued by having the exact same will, 100 years apart, linking the antebellum and the civil rights eras together, and that’s what led me to write this article," Brown said.

Brown said he has always loved political science and constitutional law. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in political science, Brown worked as a staff member in the U.S. Senate then decided to go to graduate school instead of law school. It was in graduate school at the University of Virginia that Brown became involved with constitutional law.

"Everyone has a feeling or opinion about constitutional law which makes it so fun to teach," Brown said.

Brown began his career at Auburn in 1998. He teaches several courses in American Constitutional Law as well as Religion and Politics, Law and Society and Introduction to American Government. His research interests focus primarily on church and state issues and American legal history.

"Auburn students can go toe-to-toe with students at the University of Virginia, or Harvard, or Yale or anywhere else," Brown said. "Our students are outstanding."

In 2005, Brown’s book, "Trumping Religion: The New Christian Right, The Free Speech Clause and the Courts," received the National Communication Association's Franklyn S. Haiman Award for Distinguished Scholarship in Freedom of Expression. In 2006, he received the National Faculty of the Year Award from the National Society of Collegiate Scholars. He teaches courses in the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute in Auburn, lectures on political and First Amendment issues throughout the state and also serves as an instructor with the Election Center in providing professional education training to elections officials nationwide.

For more information about Brown, go to his website.

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