St. Olaf Magazine | Winter 2020

Spotlight: Svoboda Scholar Gretchen Ohlmacher ’21

Gretchen Ohlmacher ’21 interned at the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. It was a perfect fit for this history and Russian major.
Svoboda Scholar Gretchen Ohlmacher, photographed in Holland Hall by Tom Roster

An internship created by Chief Justice Warren E. Burger in 1973 to record and preserve the history of the U.S. Supreme Court provided St. Olaf’s 2019 Svoboda Legal Scholar Gretchen Ohlmacher with two unique opportunities last summer: she got to serve as both a curator’s intern for the court and a collections management intern.

As a curator’s intern, Ohlmacher promoted public understanding of the nation’s highest court by sharing its history through a variety of programs; as a collections management intern, Ohlmacher assisted with cataloging the Supreme Court’s myriad collections, from decorative arts to ephemera related to its justices.

“Approaching the Supreme Court on my first day as a curator’s intern was awe-inspiring,” she says. “Goosebumps ran down my arms as I walked across the marble courtyard to enter the building. Once I and the other new interns had arrived and checked in, our supervisor immediately whisked us away to attend the first of many non-argument sessions — when the opinions of the justices have been read, the decision of the Supreme Court goes into effect, and the decision is made public. Afterward, they encouraged us to explore the exhibits and immerse ourselves in the rich history that the Supreme Court has to offer.”

A typical day included leading tours in which Ohlmacher provided visitors with the history of the building and architecture, and giving courtroom lectures in which she explained the kinds of cases that come to court, who and what can be seen on a typical oral argument day, and how cases are decided and decisions handed down. Ohlmacher enjoyed connecting with people and watching them light up with excitement as they learned more about the nation’s highest court. “Whenever that small connection takes place, either during a courtroom lecture or a tour, a person’s curiosity skyrockets and they engage more deeply with the world around them.”

In addition to collaborating with coworkers on team-based projects and interacting with the general public, all of which was both exciting and rewarding, Ohlmacher had an opportunity to explore careers within the Department of Justice and the Federal Judicial Committee as part of her internship, including learning more about bankruptcy law.

“[The internship] exposed me to several potential careers in the fields of law, education, and curation,” says Ohlmacher. It also expanded her knowledge of and appreciation for the Supreme Court in particular and the court system in general. “It offered me an engaging and valuable history of the United States and a legal perspective on the issues that have taken place throughout American history. Of that history, what stands out to me the most is the role of Chief Justice John Marshall in establishing most of the court’s powers that we take for granted today. During his 34 years as chief justice, Marshall established the basis of judicial review, the ability for the Supreme Court to rule any federal law that conflicts with the Constitution unconstitutional and thus render it null and voild. And he also presided over McCulloch v. Maryland, which ruled that the Constitution did allow the federal government to establish a national bank system.”

This internship is another wonderful example of alumni reaching out to help current students, notes Leslie Moore ’77, director of the Piper Center for Vocation and Career. Gary Matz ’77, a retired lawyer and a guide at the U.S. Supreme Court, shared the internship opportunity with St. Olaf Regent Greg Buck ’77, who in turn reached out to Piper Center staff. The alumni connection made this unique opportunity possible for Ohlmacher, who continues to broaden her education by studying in France during Interim and spring semester, where she will participate in the IES Paris/French Studies Program.