When Professor of Political Science Lane V. Sunderland was approached to become Director of Education for the Bicentennial of the United States Constitution, he was taken by surprise. He certainly didn’t expect to be interviewed by Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court Warren Burger either.
Despite the initial shock, Sunderland is glad to have gotten the chance to work for both Chief Justice Burger and later on Chief Justice William Rehnquist.
“[Court decisions] take on a deeper meaning when you know some of the people involved in these important cases and have a better insight into what their jurisprudence is. It was certainly a valuable experience that I’m very fortunate to have had —both times working for two different Chief Justices,” Sunderland said.
In May of 1986, Sunderland got the call from Chief Justice Burger’s assistant to interview for a role directing the Bicentennial celebration. The opportunity came after a friend from the National Endowment for Humanities suggested Sunderland for the job. This would eventually lead to Sunderland becoming one of two individuals in the United States to be chosen as a Supreme Court Fellow from 1988-1999.
“Chief Justice Burger became Chair of the Bicentennial Commission after the commissions work stalled and he was eager to have meaningful bicentennial … I soon learned that Chief Justice Burger envisioned education about the Constitution to be the centerpiece of the [commemoration],” Sunderland said.
Working with Chief Justice Burger, Sunderland quickly realized that he was a commanding boss. The high-stress environment, constant phone calls and scheduling changes on a moments notice was something Sunderland had to get adjusted to.
“It was a completely different type of life than the academic life. I soon learned what it was like to have a real boss after being in the academic setting for 15 years,” Sunderland said.
During his time with the Chief Justice, Sunderland was able to further the Bicentennial commemoration significantly. Sunderland addressed the American Bar Association meeting, gave a lecture to the National Mock Trial Competition in Washington and organized dozens of galas.
One of the biggest accomplishments of the committee was establishing the the James Madison Memorial Fellowship program. The program is still in effect today and is used to encourage primary and secondary school history teachers.
“Senator Kennedy had preferred it to be named the John F. Kennedy Fellowship, nonetheless he was influential in … establish[ing] the fellowship program. It was, of course, a great benefit to have Senator Kennedy on our team,” Sunderland said.
Furthermore, the commission distributed tens of thousands of pocket Constitutions. In fact, Sunderland still keeps a stack of miniature Constitutions to distribute to students in his classed to this very day.
Sunderland grew close to Chief Justice Burger both professionally and personally. A memory that sticks out during his time there was when the Chief Justice recounted a motorbiking accident he had the night prior.
“I asked him if he had injured his knee. He said, ‘When we get in the car, I’ll tell you an unbelievable story.’ He began … telling me that he was taking his evening walk in Arlington and it was dark. A motorcycle came over a hill, struck his knee, and pitched him into [a] ditch,” Sunderland said.
According to Sunderland, the Chief Justice recalled threatening to place the young man on the bike under citizens arrest, when before he knew it, the young man hopped onto his bike and rode off. Sunderland added that he found the Chief Justice’s incredulity to be humorous.
“I thought to myself, this isn’t like his courtroom where he banged his gavel and said ‘It is so ordered.’ I resisted the impulse to remind him of Hobbes’ state of nature where life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short,” Sunderland said with a laugh.
Another prized moment during Sunderland’s time with the committee was when he came across a car full of Knox students near Georgetown.
They yelled out “Hey Professor Sunderland,” which cemented Sunderland’s desire to return to Knox. Despite wanting Sunderland to stay on the project longer, the Chief Justice understood when it came time for Sunderland to return to Knox.
“He [said], I understand Lane. You are a teacher. I developed a great deal of respect and affection for the man I called ‘Chief’ for those 15 months I worked for him,” said Sunderland.
Sunderland believes his time at the Supreme Court, both as the Director for the Bicentennial and later on as a Supreme court fellow under Chief Justice Rehnquist have influenced him greatly.
As Sunderland prepares for his retirement in 2020, he reflects back on his time in the Supreme Court as important to his teaching and mentoring.
“As Chief Justice Burger recognized, I am, indeed a teacher. My heart has always been in the classroom. I am grateful to Knox and to the students for making my many years at Knox so gratifying,” Sunderland said.