Lauren Bell, professor of political science, rode a whirlwind on Capitol Hill last year. By the time she regained her equilibrium, she was convinced of two things: the U.S. justice system really works, and so does a Randolph-Macon education. Bell earned a prestigious Supreme Court fellowship that allowed her to research sentencing guidelines for the U.S. Sentencing Commission as a member of the Commission’s Legislative Affairs Office. During the year, she worked with U.S. House and Senate committee staff on federal sentencing policies as well as investigated the role of criminal history in sentencing. The policy team that Bell was a part of coded and analyzed nearly 80,000 crimes committed by 11,300 federal offenders who were sentenced between June 30, 2005 and July 1, 2006. As a result of this work, the Commission proposed to Congress the removal of local ordinance violations and hunting or fishing without a license from the list of crimes in a convict’s criminal history that could increase his or her prison sentence. Unless Congress acts to disapprove the Commission’s actions in this area, these changes will take effect on November 1, 2007. “In addition to the research I did, I was part of a three person team whose job was to serve as a liaison between the Sentencing Commission and the House of Representatives and Senate,” said Bell, who found herself explaining to congressional staff the very research she worked on for the Commission. “The Commission recommended amendments based on our research and it was our job to shepherd the amendments through the legislative process.” This kind of journeyman work affirmed Bell’s belief in the importance of acquiring research methodology and data analysis skills in college. “I saw people in decision-making roles who did not understand data. Also many of the people who are the first to encounter statistical information are usually between the ages of 22 and 30,” observed Bell. “When Randolph-Macon sends students out to these jobs, they understand the information they are looking at because we integrate the practical with the theoretical in the classroom.” Bell and previous political science classes have a record that proves their preparation. On Election Day, Bell’s students conduct exit polls in Hanover County. They have a reputation for calling elections long before the rest of the state. “In 2001, we declared Mark Warner the new governor of Virginia before the polls even closed in Hanover County. Based on our research of Hanover voting patterns, we were able to correctly predict how the rest of the state would go,” recalled Bell.
Bell did not spend all of her time on Capitol Hill pondering research and data. As a Supreme Court fellow, she was allowed an inside view of an institution cloaked in tradition that strives to hold itself above the political fray. “It’s amazing to watch the interplay among the justices and the mechanics of how their arguments and opinions develop. All of the justices are really interesting personalities. I was particularly impressed with Justice Anthony Kennedy and his thoughtfulness, seriousness of purpose, and awareness of what it means to be a representative of the federal judiciary.” Bell also witnessed some of the justices’ more light-hearted and human moments. “I’ll never forget Justice Antonin Scalia singing Christmas carols at the Court’s Christmas party or Chief Justice John Roberts giving out NCAA tournament predictions during March Madness.” Bell also had the opportunity to attend luncheons and meetings with high-level federal policy makers, and sat in on meetings between the U.S. justices. When the European Court of Justice visited, topics such as public opinion and garnering support for judicial decisions dominated the discussions. Bell found the conversation eye-opening. “Our justices understand that they have to be mindful of public opinion because when they make rulings, dissenting opinions are publicized along with the prevailing decision. As a result, the opinions of individual justices play a role in public perception. The European Court of Justice does not issue dissents so the public may be more inclined to support the court’s decisions.”Prior to her fellowship, Bell studied the legislative process primarily and had a less well-developed view of the federal judiciary. Not so anymore. “I have a lot of confidence in our system and I know that the justices want to do what is right. Most people only see the president and congress in action on television and it’s easy to think that the federal government is all about them. The Supreme Court justices are just as invested in representing the U.S. system of government and they are mindful of representing themselves and the courts well.” While working in Washington, Bell lived life at a very different pace. “This is a totally different world from academia. When I went home, I was through with work for the day,” laughed Bell. “Of course I was exhausted because the work is very concentrated and intense all day.”