Political science and the law and courts community lost a prominent scholar, caring mentor, and esteemed friend. Donald R. Songer (Don) passed away on November 29, 2015 after a year-long battle with cancer. He was 70 years old. A memorial service celebrating his life was held on December 3, 2015 at Ashland United Methodist Church in Columbia, SC. Don is survived by his wife of 41 years, Valerie Marlow Songer; children Michael Johnson Songer (Erica) of Washington, DC and Julie Songer Belman (Travis) of Winnsboro, SC. He is also survived by his grandson, James Glenn Belman; brother, Richard Noble Songer (Carol); and numerous nieces and nephews.
Don was born in Miami, FL, on March 20, 1945. He was a graduate and Salutatorian of Miami High; Phi Beta Kappa at the University of Florida, where he received his B.A. and M.A. in political science; and he received his Ph.D. in political science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He taught at Macon Junior College, Meredith College, and Oklahoma Baptist University before arriving to the University of South Carolina in 1986.
In many ways, Don Songer was a pioneer in the field of law and courts. At a time when most scholars conducted research exclusively on the U.S. Supreme Court, he focused his attention on the U.S. Courts of Appeals and encouraged others to follow his lead. He collected, and made public, the “U.S. Courts of Appeals Database” which inspired a generation of scholars to examine how this institution affects judicial behavior. Not content to rest here, Songer then turned his attention to the blossoming field of comparative judicial politics and began conducting research on other common law courts, most specifically the Supreme Court of Canada. He, along with Stacia Haynie, Reginald Sheehan, and the late Neal Tate produced the “High Courts Judicial Database” with case-level information for approximately twelve countries. His example helped other scholars broaden their research horizons beyond the United States in order to address fundamental questions about the rule of law in society.
Over the course of his thirty-six year career, Songer produced several books, including Decisions on the U.S. Courts of Appeals (with Ashland Kuersten); Continuity and Change on the United States Courts of Appeals (with Reginald Sheehan and Susan Haire); The Transformation of the Supreme Court of Canada; Law, Ideology and Collegiality: Judicial Behavior in the Supreme Court of Canada (with Susan Johnson, C.L. Ostberg, and Matthew Wetstein), and The View from Bench and Chambers: Examining Judicial Process and Decision Making on the U.S. Courts of Appeals (with Jennifer Barnes Bowie and John Szmer). Additionally, he published over seventy-five peer reviewed articles in journals such as the American Political Science Review, the American Journal of Political Science, the Journal of Politics, Law & Society Review, the Justice System Journal and the Journal of Law and Courts. To help support this research, Songer received almost $2 million in grants from institutions such as the National Science Foundation and the Canadian Embassy. Many of these articles are considered seminal pieces in the literature and have been cited by thousands of scholars since their publication.
Don mentored several graduate students at the University of South Carolina, chairing or co-chairing nineteen dissertation committees and serving on countless others. Many of these students now hold faculty positions at prominent colleges and universities across the U.S. Because of Don’s dedication to graduate education, the public law program at USC has been repeatedly ranked as one of the top five programs in the country. He also cared about undergraduate education, directing thirteen honor’s college theses and serving on countless other committees as well as offering over forty independent studies classes.
As a result of his prolific scholarship and dedicated mentoring, Don Songer received countless awards. The most notable of which, is the 2015 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Law and Courts Section of the American Political Science Association. In his nomination packet for this award, one of his former students said, “Don is passionate about science. He is intrigued by puzzles and enjoys the process of science. I suspect he sees himself as a student first and it was by looking at him that I learned academia was not about reaching a destination, but that it is about entering into a constant discourse. His curiosity is contagious and he cultivates his students’ curiosity by involving them in his research right away.” In addition to the Lifetime Achievement Award, Don earned numerous awards from USC, including the Mortar Board Excellence in Teaching Award (1993, 2003, 2008, and 2014), the Michael A. Hill Honors College Outstanding Faculty Award and the USC Educational Foundation Award for Research in the Social Sciences and Humanities.
With all of these accomplishments, one could easily conclude that Don Songer spent his life consumed by political science. However, nothing could be farther from the truth. He was active in the community and loved to travel; visiting all fifty states and hiking through most of the national parks in the U.S. Don spent numerous nights repeatedly serving as a coach for his son’s various athletic teams, especially soccer and basketball. He also started participating in local community theater in order to spend more time with his daughter. This passion for acting continued long after she graduated high school and he appeared in over thirty shows. His favorite roles with Norman Thayer in On Golden Pond, Father in Cheaper by the Dozen, and Pirate in Peter Pan.
In Volume 37(1) of the Justice System Journal (2016), Editor Mark Hurwitz of Western Michigan University writes the following in his Editor’s Notes for an issue dedicated to Don Songer. “Even though Don was not my advisor, I considered him as a mentor, as he was always willing to provide advice, encouragement, data, and more. Furthermore, I know I am not the only one to feel this way. Don was a towering figure in the field, having published seminal and numerous scholarship on the federal courts, particularly the U.S. Courts of Appeals as well as comparative courts.”
Don Songer was a scholar, a teacher, a mentor, a colleague, a friend, and to many (especially his graduate students) a second father. The world is a little darker without his light to shine the way, but he is in a better place where there is no pain. Meanwhile his passion for science and teaching, his generosity and warmth, and his remarkable ‘Songer Smile’ are greatly missed by all who knew him.
Kirk Randazzo, University of South Carolina
Monday, February 1, 2016