For Samuel L. Popkin, assistant professor of Government, the end of a long legal road seems near. He has walked parts of it, with orderly appeals to higher courts and routine filings of petitions and motions; and he has run other parts, with only 11th-hour stays to keep him from looking at the world from the wrong side of prison bars. Still, no one can tell what he will find when he reaches the end.
At this point, however, it would seem that a barricade has been thrown in his path.
With its action yesterday, the Supreme Court has clearly said that it would be extremely unlikely to agree to hear Popkin's case. With that established, there seem to be few possible steps left to take.
Popkin could agree to answer the three remaining questions in full, complying with the court order and as the courts say, purging himself of contempt.
But this does not seem likely. Popkin has fought for over a year to protect not only his sources, but the principle on which his ability to protect them stands. Even if the courts will not acknowledge the existence of scholarly privilege, Popkin has said frequently throughout his journey through the justice system that this privilege is a necessary part of his work.
Always in the background, however, has been looming the possibility of imprisonment, and with this latest action it seems much larger than before.
Somewhere, a compromise exists. If, as seems likely, the case returns to District Court within the next week or two, perhaps the government's need to know and Popkin's need to protect can attempt to strike a new balance.